Reflections on 2018 Merton Award

Merton Award 2018

by Jennifer Carrera

We had many exceptional books in the pool this year for the Robert K. Merton Award, SKAT’s prestigious book award that honors an outstanding book on the topic of science, knowledge, and/or technology. But one stood out among the rest. We really wanted a book that not only made a unique contribution to Science and Technology Studies and the Sociology of Knowledge, but also one that pushed the field forward. We found this in Shobita Parthasarathy’s Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe.

As Patent Politics’ title suggests, Parthasarathy’s book theorizes and triangulates matters of science, knowledge, economy, and ethical and social implications. As such, the book goes beyond the scope of much research out there, to give us a truly comprehensive analysis of the interdependence of these domains. Indeed, Parthasarathy’s portrayal makes it glaringly clear that such domains are entirely co-constitutive.

Parthasarathy takes us on a journey through the formation and contestation within and between America’s and Europe’s patent systems. American and European systems share many structural and legal features as well as some historical underpinnings, and they have both been mired in controversy that has involved a striking array of public interest groups and institutions far beyond the realm of technical expertise. Yet Parthasarathy shows that time and again, American and European Offices come away with contrasting decisions about patenting genes, patenting clones, patenting stem cells, and a whole host of other life forms, because they possess contrasting political and ideological structures. Her painstaking analysis shows that each system has its own unique framework for understanding the roles of the market and government. The American system holds a “market making” framework in which people believe that markets should be left alone, and that they are inherently good, and patents generate markets that contribute to the greater good. Meanwhile, the European system holds a “market shaping” framework wherein people believe that markets need regulation, that left alone they could create devastating problems for the public, and that patent offices are regulatory bodies. Despite attempts at international harmonization, these contrasting frameworks ensure that there will be divergences for decades to come.

We at SKAT would like to congratulate Shobita Parthasarathy on her brilliant work. Please join us in a round of applause for Patent Politics.