Indian American lawyer Priti Krishtel selected for MacArthur Fellowship; to get $800K stipend


Priti Krishtel, a California-based Indian-American health justice advocate who has exposed the injustices in the patent system to improve access to affordable, life-saving medicines on a global scale, is among 25 achievers from diverse professional fields who were responsible for the MacArthur Fellows Program 2022 selected.

Each MacArthur Fellowship comes with an award of $800,000 paid in equal quarterly installments over five years. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago does not request or expect any specific products or reports from MacArthur Fellows and does not evaluate the creativity of the recipients during the term of the grant. “It is a non-binding award to support people, not projects,” said the MacArthur Foundation.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is designed to encourage individuals of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional passions. In accordance with this purpose, the Foundation awards grants directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients can be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanities scholars, teachers, entrepreneurs or people in other fields with or without institutional affiliations. They can use their fellowship to expand their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they choose, change disciplines or change the direction of their career.

“The 2022 MacArthur Fellows are architects of new forms of activism, artistic practice and citizen science. They are excavators uncovering what has been overlooked, underestimated, or poorly understood. They are archivists, reminding us of what should survive. Her work spans from the molecular level to the land beneath our feet and the environment of Earth’s orbit – offering us new ways to understand the communities, systems and social forces that shape our lives around the globe,” said Marlies Carruth , Director of MacArthur Fellowship.

MacArthur Fellows Program nominees are introduced to the program through an ever-changing pool of invited external nominators, selected from the broadest possible range of fields and areas of interest. They are encouraged to draw on their expertise, achievements and wealth of experience to nominate the most creative people they know in their field and beyond.

Nominations are judged by an independent selection committee composed of about a dozen leaders from the arts, science, humanities, and for-profit and not-for-profit communities. After a thorough, multi-stage review, the committee makes recommendations to the President and Board of Directors of the MacArthur Foundation. Since 1981, 1,061 people have been made MacArthur Fellows.

Although nominees are merit screened, the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award but an investment in an individual’s originality, insight and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows program is to enable recipients to use their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.

The foundation chose Krishtel because, by distilling the technical aspects of the patent system to reveal its sometimes devastating impact on people’s lives, she is igniting a movement that puts people first, rather than just commercial interests in the world drug patent policy.

“I think a lot about who owns our right to healing. We live in a health hierarchy. Some people get medicine first, others don’t get it at all. Our ability to heal should not depend on our ability to pay or where we live. But it does. The patent system is not working as intended. The system blocks competition and concentrates power over access to medicines in the hands of a few elites. It helps create that health hierarchy,” Krishtel said.

Earlier in her career, Krishtel worked to improve access to antiretroviral (ARV) treatments at the height of the global AIDS epidemic. She worked with patients dying of AIDS and saw firsthand how patent monopolies often reduced the availability of life-saving drugs in low-income countries.

In 2006, Krishtel co-founded the Initiative for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge (I-MAK) to ensure the public has a voice in the pharmaceutical patent system. Krishtel and the organization draw attention to weaknesses within the patent system while identifying necessary reforms to make it more responsive to the common good.

Patents are designed to encourage innovation by ensuring that only the patentee can sell and benefit from the product for a set period of time. However, many pharmaceutical companies try to expand their monopolies by filing multiple patents over several years on small changes (e.g. changes in dosage) to existing drugs. This stifles competition, delays production of generic drugs, and keeps drugs away from the people who need them most.

I-MAK has successfully challenged patents around the world, saved governments billions of dollars in public health spending, and provided millions of people with access to life-saving treatments. Krishtel and I-MAK use a participatory process to propose reforms to US patent policy.

Their proposed reforms include ensuring that only worthwhile inventions are rewarded with a patent, increased oversight by other branches of government, and greater public participation in the patent process.

“Medicine must always be a global public good. Knowledge can no longer be imprisoned in this way. I believe in a future where people know they can keep their loved ones healthy, where people actively shape how their families and communities access medicine. Where there are incentives for more equitable drug development and equitable access to ensure innovation exists to serve people and save lives,” she added. “The challenge right now is that we live in the age of bullies. A time when a small minority of the historically powerful seek to possess the unpossessible. We say no and create a new, more compassionate and inclusive future in its place.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Krishtel has argued that incentivizing innovation should not come at the expense of equity and public health. Krishtel advances understanding of how intellectual property politics can impact personal, public, and global healthcare, and she and I-MAK envision a patent system that benefits all people, regardless of geography and economic status .

Krishtel received a BA (1999) from the University of California at Berkeley and a JD (2002) from the New York University School of Law. She worked with the Indian NGO Lawyers Collective (2003-2006) before co-founding the Initiative for Medicines, Access, and Knowledge (I-MAK) in 2006, where she is currently Co-Executive Director.

Krishtel has published in a variety of scientific journals and media platforms including Science, Journal of the International AIDS Society, The British Medical Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and USA Today.