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Egenis · Research

New directions in genomics: The sociology of systems biology (2006-2007)

Jane Calvert

Start date




Email: j.calvert@ed.ac.uk

Funded by

This project received additional funding from the US Social Sciences Research Council (SSRC) for an ESRC/SSRC visiting fellowship.


The research focused on the following areas:

  • The institutionalization of systems biology: What constitutes a systems biological approach? How is systems biology establishing itself as a new field? To what extent is systems biology continuous with past practices of biology?
  • The organization of interdisciplinarity: What mechanisms are put in place to bring scientists together from very different disciplines? What implications does the interdisciplinarity of systems biology have for the allocation of expertise and for individual disciplinary identities?
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  • Epistemic aspirations: What epistemic aspirations drive systems biology? Is it possible for biology to become an exact quantitative science with the facility for prediction and control?
  • The commercialization of systems biology: What implications does systems biology have for existing intellectual property regimes? How are guidelines being developed for the ownership of complex biological models and for standards for data sharing?
  • Socioethical discussion: What new social and ethical issues does systems biology raise? How will systems biology and its potentially contentious applications be perceived across society?


The institutionalization of systems biology

  • Integration is a key feature of systems biology, at the level of data, technologies and disciplines, and at a meta-level of the integration of all of these within the field. Integration is an important metaphor for systems biology as a whole.

The organization of interdisciplinarity

  • It is often necessary for systems biologists to step outside of established organisational structures and disciplinary ‘silos’, and develop their own novel organisational forms
  • Expertise in systems biology is distributed, and all the necessary skills are rarely found in one person. Even in centres which specialise in systems biology not many scientists call themselves a ‘systems biologist’, although senior founders of the field and younger researchers are happier to adopt this identity.

Epistemic aspirations

  • In systems biology ideas about science and what it is to do science are articulated and discussed.
  • Some systems biologists think that their field will make biology more rigorous and law-like. Others argue that the inherent complexity of biology mitigates against this.
  • Some scientists doubt that true biological understanding will be achieved through systems biology, and advocate more traditional experimental approaches.

The commercialization of systems biology

  • Because biological systems are interconnected, dynamic and networked, intellectual property regimes which are based on the understanding of a gene as a static entity will not easily be applied to systems biology.

Socioethical discussion

  • The interactive and dynamic nature of systems biology means that ethical analyses which are based on critiques of genetic reductionism or determinism may have to be re-thought in a systems context.
  • Systems biology’s interdisciplinary approach, which purports to override conventional disciplinary distinctions, could potentially challenge the way we conceive of the relationship between natural scientists and those who study them.


Powell, A., O'Malley, M.A., Müller-Wille, S.E.W., Calvert, J., and Dupré, J., 'Disciplinary baptisms: A comparison of the naming stories of genetics, molecular biology, genomics and systems biology', History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 29 (1), 2007, pp 5-32. Preprint (pdf)

O’Malley, M. A., Calvert, J., and Dupré, J., 'The socioethical investigation of systems biology (target article with commentaries and response)', American Journal of Bioethics, 7 (4), 2007, pp 64-78. Preprint (pdf)

Further information

. An annotated bibliographic database of key scientific papers in genomics, systems biology, synthetic biology, metagenomics, sociogenomics, sociomicrobiology.