Shobita Parthasarathy: Feminists in Science and Science Studies

Shobita Parthasarathy, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, a co-founder of Michigan’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program, and Faculty Affiliate in the Feminist Science Studies program.

Shobita Parthasarathy is no stranger to communicating across disciplinary boundaries, and doing feminist work in science and technology studies and policy. Professor Parthasarathy’s first book, Building Genetic Medicine: Breast Cancer, Technology, and the Comparative Politics of Health Care (MIT Press, 2007), compared the development of genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer in the US and Britain, and Parthasarathy was called on to write an expert declaration in the landmark case against Myriad Genetics which ruled that non-modified DNA sequences cannot be patented. Her forthcoming book, Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2017), is an unflinching look at how patents and patent systems reflect their social, political, and ideological context.

Amanda Modell, FRI graduate affiliate and PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at UC Davis, sat down with Professor Parthasarathy at the STGlobal Consortium’s Annual Conference in Washington DC on April 9 to talk feminism and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Amanda Modell (AM): Could you say a little bit about your path to the research you do? It seems like you're drawing from a number of disciplines.

Shobita Parthasarathy (SP): When I went to college I was interested in politics and policy and law and thought I would go into the law. But I had always been good in science and interested in science so I kind of stumbled into the core biology requirements and enjoyed them and just kept going, so I always had this dual identity. I then took courses in bioethics and health policy, and I realized I was very interested in bioethical questions but I wanted to do the empirical work. So then I came to DC, where I worked for the White House Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, a bioethics commission. The committee focused on the human radiation experiments that had been conducted during the Cold War, and also sought to evaluate the ethics of current human subjects research. I was first exposed to the politics of science during my time there, when there was a question about whether the government should notify some of the subjects of the Cold War research, who had been children when the research took place. We had already set a threshold for notification. I was going over some of the data and I realized we did the calculations incorrectly and I realized that the actual risk went over the threshold…so they re-evaluated the threshold. It was totally standard and there were good reasons for doing it, but at the time I was so mad, and deeply disillusioned.

I now realize that the politics of science is in the mundane; it's everywhere, science is deeply political.

Then I went to Cornell to do a PhD in Science and Technology Studies. My first exposure to feminist science studies was in my first-year STS seminar. I remember that we read some Evelyn Fox Keller, and I had such a strong reaction initially. I was like, “This is essentialist! Women have some feeling for the organism? Give me a break!” See, my mother is south Indian, and a feminist, and very engaged in feminism as daily life, but not in explicit politics. So I had never thought about the fact that my life was conditioned by the fact that I was a woman. Even though people would assume that as an Indian woman my life is somehow conditioned by gender, my parents and my mother in particular did not want that to be the case. I was deeply disturbed by Keller’s work, and I also thought it was potentially disempowering to assign a set of characteristics. I've become more sympathetic as I've gotten older.

Eventually, feminist theory was in the background of my dissertation (and first book) on genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA testing). In part, it explored how breast cancer advocacy, and the legacy of women's health advocacy and the women's movement, shaped BRCA testing in the US and Britain. Interestingly, Myriad Genetics, the company that dominated BRCA testing in the United States, adopted the empowerment rhetoric of these movements, and we often see this kind of “knowledge is power” language in discussions about genetics. And at the same time, a lot of feminists and breast cancer activists were quite concerned about the widespread availability of these new genetic testing technologies.

The second project doesn't explicitly talk about gender in the same way, but it's there. I'm interested centrally in questions about innovation and the public interest and democracy.

We tend to assume that innovation systems, including patent systems, are in the public interest, but we don’t often interrogate what that means or how that works.

I became very interested in the controversies over life forms (e.g., genes, stem cells, genetically modified plants and animals) because it demonstrates deep public dissatisfaction with these innovation systems particularly along moral and socioeconomic lines. As I did an in-depth historical and comparative analysis, I began to understand that even the United States and Europe tend to think quite differently about the meaning of the public interest in the context of innovation, and of the roles and responsibilities of innovation, and specifically patent, systems. This, I argue, is the result of deep-seated differences in political culture, ideology, and history. And, these differences shape how patent systems understand what constitutes knowledge and expertise and who is a relevant participant.

The project I’m just starting extends this focus on innovation in the public interest, and explores “grassroots” innovation and efforts to foster it. The idea is to look at innovation produced by those without technical expertise or financial resources, as a means of challenging our notions of innovation, innovative work, and the need for scientific and technical expertise to produce innovation in the public interest.

Of course, this challenges constructions of who's an expert and who's not and who has knowledge and who doesn't, which is fundamentally a feminist critique. 

As part of this project, I want to explore cases of innovation by and for women, as this often gets left out of the innovation discussion. Being a STS scholar in a policy school, and involved in science and technology policy discussions, I have the opportunity to introduce ideas about the multiplicities of knowledge to people have rarely heard of STS. It can be challenging to make the case in those spaces, you often feel like you're swimming against the tide, but I want to make those arguments there because that's the only way we're going to make change.

AM: Part of what I hear you saying is that epistemological arguments about the politics of knowledge and expertise are going to be able to make inroads in places where arguments about women or women's health don't gain purchase. What do you think is important about bringing a feminist perspective, even if it doesn't explicitly involve gender, to science studies?

SP: I think there's a lot of feminist perspective deeply embedded in STS. The deep epistemological questions about how knowledge is situated come from feminist theory. How power dynamics shape our understandings of knowledge and expertise are questions that animate a lot of STS. Some people might argue there's not enough feminist critique in STS but I think it has taken hold. The notions of participatory innovation and citizen science are rooted in feminist ideas and that is where a lot of the field is going. A lot of the people we bring into the Feminist Science Studies program at Michigan are at the forefront of STS. Personally, I’ve become increasingly interested in how we can bring feminist theory more explicitly into science and technology policy, and my grassroots innovation project is part of that effort. Also, with Rachel Ankeny (University of Adelaide) I'm putting together a panel on feminist approaches to science and technology policy at 4S (Society for Social Studies of Science) in Barcelona later this summer.

AM: How do you think feminist theory could inflect policy?

SP: For a start, it should force us to think twice about how we identify the “evidence” for evidence-based policymaking.

Our understandings of what constitutes evidence and expertise are shaped by power dynamics. Similarly, I have begun to think about how our understandings of innovation and innovative work, and our innovation systems, are gendered. How might we think differently about them?

To help me do so for my new grassroots innovation project, I’ve been looking at some very interesting cases in India. The government-funded National Innovation Foundation and NGOs associated with it, for example, try really hard to identify, reward, and foster grass roots innovation. By grassroots innovation, they mean usually low-cost and low-tech tools produced by those who are not scientific or technical elites; “knowledge rich and resource poor” is how they refer to it. The NIF and associated organizations have competitions where they go into rural villages and try to identify innovation—for instance a low-tech windmill that can be used in place of a diesel pump to pump out water for salt mining. It might be in operation by just one person, somebody who doesn't have more than a high school education, if that, who's trying to develop new tools. So they'll work with the person to standardize it and figure out the feasibility of it and they make sure that person gets a patent. And they work with the person to commercialize the invention if they want to, by developing licensing agreements with companies that also ensure benefits for inventors and their communities. This challenges our notions of what counts as innovation, and what counts as fostering innovation, which may produce a more empowering model.

Similarly, the Indian Self-Employed Women’s Association, which has long represented women working in the informal economy, is also engaged in innovation in new ways. It works with its rural constituencies to develop innovative ideas, which include new objects but also new manufacturing and distribution approaches. What is interesting is that they don’t necessarily frame their work in terms of innovation, but clearly that’s what they’re doing, so it really clarified for me how gendered our approaches are. And, it made me think about what a more feminist approach to our innovation policy would look like, and whether this might enhance the capacity of innovation to achieve the public interest and social justice goals. This new work is also raising new questions for me as a researcher, because until now I’ve generally studied elites. So, now as I design the project, I’m thinking differently about my responsibilities, and how I can make sure that I think carefully about the ethics of this work and giving back in an appropriate way. What are the responsibilities of the researcher, particularly when you're studying people who are less privileged than you are? How do I make sure that I'm giving back and that it is collaborative in some way?

AM: What are the kinds of challenges you've faced in your career and the ways that you meet those challenges? And I think self-care is a great area of inquiry there.

SP: Because I’m an interdisciplinary scholar, I often feel like a fish-out-of-water and a bit isolated. It can also enhance feelings of self-doubt. I think it's important for junior scholars to know that senior scholars have impostor syndrome sometimes! It doesn't go away, but you can learn how to manage it. I don't know any senior woman who doesn't have self-doubt, and that can be exacerbated when you're in spaces where you're doubted. So the initial response is, "Wait a second, do I not know? Is he right?" I'm learning how to say, "No, I know what I'm talking about and I'm doing a good job." I think it's important at the very least to acknowledge the struggle. Just a year or so, for example, I was at a workshop and after I gave a talk a senior scientist kept trying to educate me about how I didn't know what I was talking about and it was pretty tough. It helped to step outside and say, "This guy is embodying the phenomenon I'm describing." I just happened to be writing the conclusion to my book and it motivated me. I said, “Actually I can use this, this tells me something about the world. This is a social phenomenon, this is not about me.”

I also think self-care is very important. I work out or do yoga almost every day. Especially when I was untenured, if I didn't have a regimented schedule for working out then I would have never slept. There was too much anxiety. There's also having support systems; my family and my friends are really good support systems. And, I’m a singer so I do that when I can do, which is a wonderful stress-reliever.

AM: It sounds like there's a potential for a recursive relationship between the stakes of your work and the way in which you share that work. If you remind yourself of your engagement with the work that's going to influence the way you bring it to people and then in turn the way people respond to your work and engage with you about it might actually then provide you more information.

SP: And more motivation. I don't see myself as an activist and I purposely don't envision or conduct my work that way. My job is not to intervene in existing political debates. I see myself as a scholar first. But, I am very motivated by big social and policy challenges, whether it’s the implications of genomics, the social, moral, and economic challenges posed by intellectual property regimes, or the public interest dimensions of innovation. I actually didn't anticipate being an academic; I thought I would be in policy. But I was really into the research!

I think it is recursive in the sense that I funnel my passion about the world and social justice into my research questions. My research questions are fundamentally informed by my desire to make the world a better place.

That shapes the question but it doesn't shape the data collection or the conclusions. But at the end of the day, it’s also important for me to get my conclusions out into the broader world, so I try to write op-eds, talk to the media, advise policymakers, etc.

AM: What advice do you have for scholars embarking on interdisciplinary feminist research?

SP: We don't realize how deeply different fields are, and I think it's important to put those differences on the table and talk about them. So before you talk about working across disciplines you have to talk about differences in incentive structures:

  • Do you need grants for your salary?
  • Do you write books or articles?
  • How do you engage with policy, and think about practical application?

Those kinds of things should be discussed, as well as real terminological differences. There also has to be real respect for one another.

True interdisciplinary work requires a set of hard conversations about shared goals and interests. To figure out how everyone's research interests can be captured in how the problem is defined, that's really difficult. 

The thing that's not hard is giving a team money to do research on a topic, and everyone does their work individually. That's valuable but I wouldn't call that interdisciplinary work. Facilitating those kinds of early conversations, that's where FRI's really exciting potential value comes from.

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