Shobita Parthasarathy is Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women's Studies and Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the governance of ethically and socially controversial science and technology, particularly in comparative perspective. She is also interested in how technological innovation and innovation systems can better achieve public interest and social justice goals. She has advised many science and technology policymaking institutions on Genetics, Health and Society.
Over the past thirty years, the world’s patent systems have experienced pressure from civil society like never before. From farmers to patient advocates, new voices are arguing that patents impact public health, economic inequality, morality – and democracy. These challenges, to domains that we usually consider technical and legal, may seem surprising. But, I argue, patent systems have always been deeply political and social. To demonstrate this, I discuss the particularly fierce and prolonged set of controversies over patents on life forms linked to important advances in biology and agriculture and potentially life-saving medicines. Clashes over what constitutes the public interest, whose voices and which values matter in the patent system, as well as what counts as knowledge and whose expertise is important, look quite different in these two places, and are shaped by political culture, ideology and history. And through these debates, the United States and Europe are developing very different approaches to patent and innovation governance. Understanding these political dynamics is key to developing better approaches to the governance of intellectual property.