WhatIsALab

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What is a Laboratory?

A laboratory is a facility that provides controlled conditions in which scientific research, experiments and measurements may be performed, offering a work space for researchers.

  • Workbenches ensure comfortable working conditions for the researchers.
  • Laboratories are shared spaces for a number of researchers, leading to collaboration, dissemination and pooling of some knowledge but not all. Knowledge is shared when it is in the interests of the laboratory members to share and restricted when it is in the personal interests of the scientist to do so until they are confident enough to publish.
  • Laboratories provide facilities for data collection and archiving and data analysis safely, in controlled conditions and using best practice methods.
  • Laboratories adhere to a governance framework - the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented). Governance is implemented through policies that define procedures for security, access, use, publishing etc.
  • Scientists design their experiments, establishing, or using established, protocols or methods that encapsulate best practice and know-how in the laboratory or the wider community, and enable results to be compared across researchers and laboratories.
  • Scientists log an experiment's purpose and progress in a laboratory notebook, including the choice of materials and the configuration of instruments. These records ensure that the experiments are transparent and the outcomes are reproducible, and so that experiments can be repeated and results unambiguously interpreted by colleagues and peers.
  • Raw and processed data, analytical techniques and experimental protocols are pooled and shared in a controlled way amongst colleagues and collaborators at first and with peers within a scientific community when published, possibly with some sanitization applied.
  • A range of different stakeholders use and manage laboratories:
    • Laboratory scientists design and run the experiments and interpret the results, propose hypotheses to test and validate hypotheses proposed by others; and pool the results through publication to be drawn upon by colleagues and peers in various different degrees depending on the closeness of the collaboration and the openness of the science.
    • Laboratory technicians are responsible for laboratory-based tasks, which include sampling, testing, measuring, recording and analysing results. They also provide all the required technical support to enable the laboratory to function effectively, whilst adhering to correct procedures and guidelines.
    • Laboratory managers have overall responsibility for the smooth running of all laboratory, the setting and enforcing of governance conditions for running the laboratory including health and safety, the security of sensitive materials such as data, lab books and materials, the up-to-data provisioning of the laboratory with the necessary materials; the maintenance of the laboratory and its equipment; and the oversight of the lab books.
    • External materials and instruments suppliers contribute to the pool of resources drawn upon by the laboratory: data, publications, protocols, instruments to the laboratory from outside the laboratory; for example, public data sets, scientific publishers, public instruments (like synchrotrons), suppliers of equipment and reagents.

The purpose of a laboratory is to furnish scientists with the environment and the tools to enable them to propose and test hypotheses and pool their knowledge.

Adapted from the Wikipedia entry for laboratory by Carole Goble.