Q&A: Shaping science, technology debates: U-M’s Shobita Parthasarathy
Written by Mandira Banerjee
Shobita Parthasarathy was recently promoted to full professor at the Ford School of Public Policy at University of Michigan. In doing so, she joined a small handful of Indian-American women professors and researchers of public policy at U.S. universities.
Parthasarathy is a leading scholar of science and technology policy studies. Her last book, “Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe,” analyzes the growing concern that modern patents are not adequately serving public interests—public health, economic equity, morality and democracy.
Michael Barr, dean of Ford School of Public Policy, called Parthasarathy an “outstanding, highly engaged scholar and an exemplary teacher.”
Parthasarathy spoke about her journey and her motivations to follow her passions.
Q: How did you become interested in a career in public policy?
Parthasarathy: I became interested in politics and law as a high school student. The biggest influence probably was the Junior Statesmen program where I spent one month at Georgetown University. The students met with policymakers and engaged in policy debates and multidisciplinary discussions and it gave me a great overview.
As an undergraduate, I chose biology as my major, but I wasn’t satisfied with the usual career paths available. I was really interested in the broader implications of science and wanted to make a difference in society. I also realized the emerging fields of genetics and biotechnology raised a number of policy questions and we needed more social scientific research about their social, ethical, economic and health implications.
I spent some time working in science and technology policy in Washington, D.C., which motivated me to pursue a research that would be helpful to policymakers. It took me down a new and exciting path. In my research, I have asked how science and technology and related policies, both shape and are shaped by politics and society. I also get to explore whose voices are heard in policy discussions and how we should balance expert and public voices in policymaking.
Q: There are probably less than 10 Indian-American women scholars in public policy. Why do you think there are so few?
Parthasarathy: I think that Indians, even children of Indian immigrants, tend to encourage paths that seem to lead clearly to a stable or lucrative career, like engineering, medicine, business or law. As a result, we see few public policy scholars.
I didn’t have too many role models when I was a student, but it’s wonderful that there are more and more Indian women and women of color in public policy and in academia who are relatable to students.
It has been truly fulfilling for me, allowing me to feel like I am making a difference in the world through my research, teaching and policy engagement.
Q: What motivates your research and teaching?
Parthasarathy: My work is dedicated towards understanding and analyzing innovation to better serve society. I ask the question, “How can we do a better job of developing innovation and innovation policy to benefit the public interest, achieve social justice goals and ensure public legitimacy?”
I am lucky that my parents instilled in me a great passion for social justice and the desire to give back to society, which allowed me to pursue public policy research. I am also thankful that they let me pursue my interests instead of being told to follow the well-tested paths that many in the Indian-American community do.
Q: What is your advice to students interested in following career in public policy?
Parthasarathy: My advice to the students is that the career horizons have expanded. There are many more opportunities in social science and qualitative research related to policy and in academia. I hope they will view them as viable places and, hopefully, I can inspire some of them to do it.
Being a child of immigrants, I am aware of the history of immigration and Indians in the U.S., and this had a big impact on me. I tell everyone to follow their passions and try to make a difference in the world. And, yes, you can be gainfully employed doing it.