Fashions in science and policy? The case of systems biology
Since 2000 systems biology has emerged as a new field in the life sciences, claiming to revolutionise biology and medicine. While the Human Genome Project and subsequent reductionist –omics approaches produce masses of data on key molecules in living cells, systems biology aims to shift towards a more holistic mind-set, focussing on interactions to discover life’s universal principles and laws. The integration of data in mathematical models of life currently targets single-cell organisms – such as yeast – and human organs, including heart and liver. Ultimately, it is envisioned to lead to the creation of a virtual human, while advancing systems medicine by making healthcare personalised, predictive, preventive, and participatory (P4 medicine).
In this paper I reflect on the ways in which we can understand the rise of systems biology. If it is a fashion, it is one with epistemic significance. Building on work by Frickel and Gross (2005) I will argue that systems biology can be seen as a Social Intellectual Movement, which brings researchers from different disciplines and countries together. While analysing the entanglement of epistemic and social transformations, special attention will be given to different local and national patterns of emergence – from modelling yeast in Manchester to the creation of the German virtual liver. I will show how some strong, globally dispersed centres, have been able to effectively influence science policy, raising funds to build human capacity, organisations and infrastructures, and creating an international network. However, while the short-term dynamics of contemporary research funding in some ways allowed systems biology to become big in a relatively quick time, now science policy and funding are moving to the next frontier leaving the future of systems biology hanging in the balance.