John Krige Co-Authors Paper on COVID-19 Research
In February 2020, John Krige, Kranzberg professor (now professor emeritus) in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts School of History and Sociology, organized a conference on “Transnational Transactions: Negotiating the Movement of Knowledge Across Borders,” as part of his role as the recipient of the prestigious Francis Bacon Award in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.
During the conference, scholars gathered at the California Institute of Technology to develop a transnational approach to the circulation of knowledge for a number of case studies of interest to historians of science and technology. But, despite the increasing news coverage of the novel coronavirus, which had first emerged in China and was beginning to spread across national borders, Covid-19 was not at the forefront of the conference participants’ minds.
“It is striking now that Covid-19 was not even mentioned once: the first official case was recorded in California a week later,” Krige reflected. “It is also striking that it is at face-to-face workshops like this, not virtual meetings, that strong bonds of intellectual friendship and respect are built.”
One such intellectual friendship Krige established was with Sabina Leonelli, professor of Philosophy and History of Science at Exeter University. The two are co-authors of a recent article published in the journal History and Technology (March 2021).
Covid-19 Research Across Borders
When the pandemic hit Europe, the two scholars recognized that the response to Covid-19 would be a case of particular importance to the study of transnational knowledge flows, and they sought to develop a historiographical discussion of the issue as it unfolded.
“Sabina and I felt that we had to engage intellectually with what was evidently an unfolding tragedy of historical importance,” Krige said.
They were particularly interested in the tension between national responses to the pandemic and the need for international efforts to share data and develop technology to combat the spread. This is explored in their article through two case studies of events that the authors had witnessed first-hand in Europe.
For the first case study, Krige examined a debate which had unfolded while he was on national lockdown in France over whether to adopt a Franco-German-developed contract tracing app or one developed by Apple and Google. The French government ultimately rejected the system imposed by the large global data management platforms, in favor of the one developed transnationally, which still maintained user data privacy while also being more effective for healthcare workers due to the centralization of the data under the national pandemic response. Other issues, such as interoperability between different phones and apps, were also discussed in the debates surrounding the contract tracing apps. While France chose the app they saw as being more conducive to their national response, other European nations, including Germany, adopted the Google and Apple app instead. These decisions, Krige writes, were deeply rooted in the individual nation’s history and the way that the apps were promoted to the public.
Leonelli, meanwhile, had been involved with doctors in Italy who were trying to find ways of collecting and disseminating big data on cases seen in their clinics, rather than in hospitals. In the article, she discusses how the front-line experience doctors in Italy attempted to share regarding the importance of monitoring oxygen levels in Covid-19 patients was not well understood as a key predictor of death internationally until April 2020, months after the Italian doctors had raised the alarm, because of national healthcare factors like the number of patients per general practitioner. This failure to understand and interpret the local experience when shared across borders, the paper argues, shows the urgency of devising standards and technologies for the dissemination and discussion of local findings quickly, as “knowledge does not move transnationally by itself.”
The Need for Transnational Data Sharing Standards
For the authors, the Covid-19 pandemic has only highlighted the political pertinence of transnationalism. Their two case studies ultimately confirm what is already well-known to scholars of science and technology studies – collaboration on science and technology is dependent on agreed standards and protocols for data collection and sharing across borders. Additionally, they argue that there is a need for co-production and interoperability between different national strategies and their performance, not marred by any prior assumptions about Global North hegemony or superiority.
“We can only regret that the structures that we analyzed had little success in curbing fragmented competitive national responses to the distribution of knowledge, and vaccines, between the rich industrialized countries,” Krige said, “All the more distressing for it being at the expense of the poor elsewhere in the world.”
Krige and Leonelli’s paper, “Mobilizing the Transnational History of Knowledge Flows. COVID-19 and the Politics of Research at the Borders,” is available (open access) at https://doi.org/10.1080/07341512.2021.1890524.