Innogen · Research · Current projects
Systems Biology: Emergence, Aspirations and Translations

Jane Calvert

Funding: ESRC Innogen Centre

Started: January 1 2002


Although genomics approaches in the biological sciences have provided a great deal of molecular data, some have argued that genomics has failed to deliver, both in a socio-economic sense of providing cures for diseases as was promised, and in a conceptual sense of providing an understanding of how biological organisms function.

In this context, we have seen the rise of new schools of biology which are concerned with integration rather than reduction.

‘Systems biology’ is the name adopted by some of these approaches. Systems biology makes use of computational tools and mathematical modelling to analyse the vast amounts of data that have been generated by genome sequencing and other high through-put data gathering projects.

It requires the collaboration of scientists from many different disciplines, including physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers and biologists.

It has been heralded as the future of biology and healthcare and has received high levels of investment around the globe, so it is an important topic for social scientific analysis.

Aims and objectives

This project aims to answer the following research questions:

  • What constitutes a systems biological approach?
  • How is systems biology establishing itself as a new field? What mechanisms are put in place to bring scientists together from very different disciplines? What implications does the interdisciplinarity of systems biology have for individual disciplinary identities?
  • What epistemic aspirations drive systems biology? Is it possible for biology to become an exact quantitative science with the facility for prediction and control?
  • 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?
  • What new social and ethical issues does systems biology raise? 
  • Which areas of systems biology have the most potential for translation? How will systems biology be translated into personalised medicine? 
  • What is the relationship between systems biology and synthetic biology?

Research methods

  • In-depth interviews with systems biologists and policy makers
  • Extended stays at systems biology centres in the UK and US
  • Attendance at systems biology conferences and workshops, combined with interviews and observation


O’Malley, M, Calvert, J and Dupré, J (2007) ‘The study of socioethical issues in systems biology’ (target article with commentaries and response) American Journal of Bioethics, 7(4): 67–78

O’Malley, M. A., Calvert, J., and Dupré, J. (2007) 'Response to our commentators' American Journal of Bioethics, 7 (4): W7-W9

Powell, A, O’Malley, M, Müller-Wille, S, Calvert, J and Dupré, J (2007) ‘Disciplinary Baptisms: A comparison of the naming stories of genetics, molecular biology, genomics and systems biology’ History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, Vol. 29, pp.5-32

Calvert, J (2008)  BioSocieties 3(4): 385-400