Dr. Shobita Parthasarathy, professor and director of the Ford School of Public Policy’s Science, Technology, and Public Policy program, had planned to spend the summer in India, continuing her research on inclusive innovation.

Specifically, she studies menstrual health innovation, including the ways a movement with an inclusive framework can sometimes silence the voices it aims to uplift. The paradox interests her because inclusive innovation is, by definition, directed toward public good. This type of innovation centers the notion that the best people to develop technologies which positively impact their communities are community members themselves.

“The broad political economy around innovation has blinded us to the ways it serves to reproduce inequalities and power balances. In the case of menstrual health, innovation becomes focused on commodities, such as sanitary pads. The knowledge base that’s constructed ends up excluding the traditional knowledge of Indian women in favor of a westernized approach,” Parthasarathy said.

While her examination of hidden disempowerment in inclusive innovation continues, a global pandemic has prevented Parthasarathy from traveling to India for summer research.

But, as COVID cases surged across the globe, Parthasarathy knew she had the interdisciplinary expertise to help. She applied for a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant to understand how political culture shapes COVID-19 testing responses in Singapore, South Korea, the UK, and the US.

“Like everyone else in those early moments of the crisis, I was experiencing uncertainty, anxiety and bewilderment,” Parthasarathy said. “But I realized I had a lens for thinking about it—that I’d done work on medical testing, innovation, and comparative politics.”

“In those early moments, I knew I wanted to contribute to getting us out of this and avoiding this experience in the future. I’ve never written a grant so quickly; my desire to do something using my own conceptual tools was urgent.”

Since officially receiving the grant, Parthasarathy has developed an international research team of colleagues and students. Through her research, she hopes to understand how countries with underdeveloped testing infrastructure, like the US, can create testing and public health policies in preparation for future pandemics.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how countries imagine their pandemic futures. That is, how do they learn from previous pandemics, infectious disease experiences, and public health crises? How does their learning inform the way they prepare for next time?”

Countries like South Korea, Parthasarathy explained, have learned about the importance of testing from previous experiences with SARS and MERS outbreaks. For these countries, expansion of testing capacity was a crucial and intuitive response to COVID.

However, in countries like the US, previous experiences with infectious disease have not led to expansion of testing capacity. Furthermore, while vaccines and therapies were part of pandemic preparedness, there wasn’t a concerted effort to increase the quantity and availability of testing.

“The US famously doesn’t have an innovation policy. Instead, we fund a lot of science in hopes that the best innovation will come out of an environment which supports scientific curiosity,” Parthasarathy said.

“Korea has more of a mission-driven approach. For example, in the wake of previous outbreaks, the government funded the private sector to increase diagnostic testing capacity. Here in the US, we have a lot of people who can administer testing for the coronavirus, but we still haven’t gotten to the point where we can use that capacity to ensure people actually have access to tests.”

Aligning with her ongoing research on the way technologies reflect social issues, Parthasarathy is also investigating the relationship between testing systems and inequalities. In the US, for example, coronavirus continues to affect Black Americans at disproportionate rates.

“We’re seeing a similar situation in Singapore,” she said. “At first, Singapore was seen as a wonderful model for the rest of the world in terms of how the government was handling the disease. Soon, it became clear that their very large migrant worker population wasn’t included in the technological systems they’d built to manage the crisis.”

Parthasarathy said the UK is the oddball case study in her NSF grant. There, the government has enlisted expert advisory groups to help guide the country’s pandemic response.

“It’s a culture that values elite advice, but expert groups have advised the government in an opaque way that leaves some ambiguity as to who is calling the shots. It seems that the advice was to increase the immunity of the population, so it’s not surprising that the UK didn’t invest very much money in diagnostic testing,” Parthasarathy said.

“Instead, [the UK] funneled money into antibody testing under the assumption they could demonstrate herd immunity. The thing is, it’s not even clear that herd immunity is relevant in the case of COVID-19.”

Parthasarathy and her team are still in the early stages of their research. Right now, she said, the answers they discover beget more questions.

“I’m especially interested in the politics of evidence and expertise. In the midst of this crisis, which numbers do people trust when they look at case and test counts? Who are the experts that matter?  People don’t necessarily have the time or bandwidth to figure out how to find the right information, how to navigate all of this.”