My first experience with the science-IT relationship issue occurred when the analytical chemistry lab I worked in wanted to buy a computer for chromatography work. The Management Information Services (MIS) department (management as in “upper management,” not “management of,” and the forerunner of modern IT departments) couldn’t understand why we couldn’t use their computer (an IBM 360 that could only run one program at a time), since there were times when it wasn’t busy. After trying to explain the situation to MIS, which needed to approve all computer purchases, the lab director agreed to use their machine on one condition: we needed only one percent of the computer’s time, but we needed it every millisecond—something that wasn’t possible with that system. Suffice it to say, the lab got its own computer.
It is comparatively easy for IT departments to support office applications. IT departments use those applications too, and they are educated to work with database systems, networks, and other technologies that are covered in traditional computer science programs. Labs are a different story and different world. Aside from some references on television programs like the CSI or NCIS series, lab applications are something IT departments are not familiar with.
The issues come down to these:
- Your lab depends on computer systems to function.
- The IT group that is responsible for supporting lab computer systems may not understand how they are being used.
- The IT department may have policies concerning systems support that don’t work in lab environments.
Developing good working relations with the IT department is in your lab’s best interest—they have access to technologies and skills you need. Do you have a computer system running an application that is there just to gain access to historical data but isn’t otherwise in active service? When people are being trained to use a database system, a LIMS for example, is there concern that their activities may put erroneous information into the system, or would you like to have each user train on his or her own copy of the application? When you are upgrading a system, would it be useful to have access to both the old and new versions during the transition?