Genetics and Biotechnology Policy
I teach both graduate and undergraduate courses on genetics and biotechnology policy. Developed initially in the 1970s, the field of biotechnology has begun to revolutionize our daily lives in fundamental ways. We can now predict our genetic risk of contracting disease, we can select embryos based on their genetic makeup, and we consume genetically modified foods that many argue will alleviate world hunger. But this area of science and technology raises a variety of thorny policy questions. To what extent should we tinker with, and manipulate, life? How might our rush towards genetic medicine make us view all diseases as “fixable” and ultimately lead to lower tolerance towards people with disabilities? Might genetically modified crops increase agricultural consolidation and reduce biodiversity? What are the social impacts of being defined by our genes, and how should policymakers step in? Both of my courses focus on these questions, and cover a range of topics including genetic medicine, agricultural biotechnology, and DNA in criminal justice. No technical background is required for either course.
My undergraduate course, entitled Biotechnology, Social Justice, and Public Policy, is an intensive, discussion-based course. It focuses on how policymakers might ensure that genetic and bio-technologies are used in a socially beneficial way, including achieving social justice. The term project in this course is the development of a deliberative democratic forum, which students do in teams. With guidance from me, they select a controversial topic in this area, learn about the details of the issue including its politics, and then design and conduct a forum that will engage the public on the topic. Key here is that students treat citizens as experts; rather than assuming that the citizens need to be taught about these technically complex issues, these forums assume that citizens bring important values and experiences that must be considered in the discussion.
The graduate version of this course, entitled Genetics and Biotechnology Policy, is conducted in a seminar-style. Students read scholarly articles and books, and policy papers, and discuss where and how policymakers should intervene to ensure that the public benefits from this area of science and technology. Students help to stimulate the discussion by coming to class with questions on the readings. The term project in this course is a comprehensive analysis of a particular policy related to genetics and biotechnology. Students write short papers about the policy and the problem it is intended to solve, and the values embedded in the policy. They analyze the stakeholders involved and the potential implications of the policy, and after a thorough analysis, provide recommendations on whether and how the policy should be changed.
A student’s perspective (on the undergrad course):
“While I initially took Professor Parthasarathy’s biotechnology seminar to gain exposure to subjects outside my other public policy courses, I quickly learned that science and government are far more similar than I realized. Though I had considered values to be political and evidence to be scientific, over the semester I saw these lines begin to blur.
We engaged with both historical and ongoing debates, and I saw my own biases come into play in which arguments and evidence I found persuasive. At the end of the semester, the deliberative forum exercise solidified our understanding of these controversies as well as how to manage a civil discussion about them. I found the experience of facilitating these conversations invaluable. Managing conflict and reading a room are skills that I knew were important, but had rarely been able to apply in the classroom.
Before taking the class, I typically accepted most seemingly reputable scientific news stories without hesitation. I never felt qualified to question their conclusions. While I still can’t claim to be a expert, I often find myself considering the potential motivations and framing of scientific arguments. Professor Parthasarathy’s class was incredibly helpful in gaining this understanding. I’d highly suggest it, especially for those who feel intimidated by the scientific issues themselves.” --BA student, 2015.
A student's perspective (on the graduate course):
"This was probably the most transformative class of my entire M.A./Ph.D career, so I am excited to share my thoughts on it. The course lived up to its name, and I learned a significant amount about biotechnology policy. More broadly, it gave me the tools to think critically about science and technology policy. It taught me that “facts” are socially constructed, and it pushed me to weigh each actor, value, and form of knowledge and expertise included (and excluded) in decision-making and the implications. Thanks to the professor’s incredible—virtual line-by-line editing—on all written assignments, this class also transformed me from a high school/undergraduate writer into a graduate/professional writer. There is a distinct difference in the quality of my writing before and after this course, including in terms of its succinctness, clarity, and persuasion. I have since published in academic journals and popular national magazines. I highly recommend this professor and this class." --PhD student in Sociology and Public Policy, 2010.