Centre for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities
Research project

Reflexive Systems Biology

Reflexive Systems Biology: Towards an Appreciation of Biological, Scientific and Ethical Complexity was an NFR-funded project that aimed to clarify and assess the ambitions of systems biology and their implications.

Dorothy Dankel: Reflexive Systems Biology

Dorothy Dankel, PhD candidate in Reflexive Systems Biology, speaks about the project in this video by The School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) at Arizona State University, USA.

Main content

The ambitions of systems biology and synthetic biology are often stated in terms of prediction, control, design and fabrication of organisms. If possible, the ethical and social aspects involved may be huge, including those of biosafety and biosecurity. We proposed an advanced project combining Science and Technology Studies with theoretical biology/ complexity theory in order to clarify and assess the ambitions of systems biology and their implications. This was achieved by an interdisciplinary dialogue approach across the natural and social sciences. In this way, the project contributed to a socially robust systems biology, in which scientific practitioners develop and act upon a reflexive understanding of their own role.

The project involved the following subtasks:

1. An overview of existing designs of theoretical models in systems biology
2. An overview of currently recognised possible future designs of theoretical models in systems biology
3. A critical assessment of the potential and limitations of the designs, applying the work of Robert Rosen and other complexity theorists.
4. A mapping of the perceived potential and limitations of systems biology and synthetic biology with respect to long-term future knowledge & technology out puts, including the prospects of design and fabrication of life forms.
5. An STS-complexity theory model that not just accounts for the complexity of the organism to be studied/fabricated, but also the complex relationships between study object, knowledge and scientific practice.
6. A mapping of the potential ethical and social aspects of the outputs described in (4-5).
7. A normative analysis of how the awareness of the aspects emerging from (6) can and should be handled in scientific practice, science policy, and governance of science.
8. Midstream modulation of research practice both by developing the results in (4-7) but also if and how they are to be accounted for.