Interdisciplinary problem-solving: emerging modes in integrative systems biology

Miles MacLeod*, Nancy J. Nersessian

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)
5 Downloads (Pure)


Integrative systems biology is an emerging field that attempts to integrate computation, applied mathematics, engineering concepts and methods, and biological experimentation in order to model large-scale complex biochemical networks. The field is thus an important contemporary instance of an interdisciplinary approach to solving complex problems. Interdisciplinary science is a recent topic in the philosophy of science. Determining what is philosophically important and distinct about interdisciplinary practices requires detailed accounts of problem-solving practices that attempt to understand how specific practices address the challenges and constraints of interdisciplinary research in different contexts. In this paper we draw from our 5-year empirical ethnographic study of two systems biology labs and their collaborations with experimental biologists to analyze a significant problem-solving approach in ISB, which we call adaptive problem solving. ISB lacks much of the methodological and theoretical resources usually found in disciplines in the natural sciences, such as methodological frameworks that prescribe reliable model-building processes. Researchers in our labs compensate for the lack of these and for the complexity of their problems by using a range of heuristics and experimenting with multiple methods and concepts from the background fields available to them. Using these resources researchers search out good techniques and practices for transforming intractable problems into potentially solvable ones. The relative freedom lab directors grant their researchers to explore methodological options and find good practices that suit their problems is not only a response to the complex interdisciplinary nature of the specific problem, but also provides the field itself with an opportunity to discover more general methodological approaches and develop theories of biological systems. Such developments in turn can help to establish the field as an identifiably distinct and successful approach to understanding biological systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)401-418
JournalEuropean journal for philosophy of science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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