Assembling Knowledge Without Boarders: the Science of Pandemic Preparedness

Short bio: 

Ben Hurlbut is Assistant Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University in the United States. Ben Hurlbut is trained in the history of modern biomedical and life sciences. His research lies at the intersection of science and technology studies, bioethics and political theory. He studies the changing relationships between science, politics and law in the governance of biomedical research and innovation in the 20th and 21st centuries. Focusing on controversy around morally and technically complex problems in areas such as human embryonic stem cell research and genomics, Hurlbut examines the interplay of science and technology with shifting notions of democracy, of religious and moral pluralism, and of public reason. He is currently completing a book on human embryo research and public bioethics in the United States. He holds an AB from Stanford University, and a PhD in the history of science from Harvard University.


“Like science, emerging viruses know no country.” This is the first line in a book that twenty years ago helped to put emerging infectious disease on the global health map. Two decades later, the potentially catastrophic futures it imagined have come to animate a regime of global viral surveillance that aspires to anticipate and detect emerging viruses with pandemic potential, in effect approaching pandemic control as a science of global data analytics that, like viruses, “knows no country.” This regime aims to produce an informatic picture that renders conditions of risk and response epistemically commensurable across global space: heterogeneous social, economic and political forms of life are epistemic noise, obstacles to be overcome in producing a scientifically legible global biogeography. Yet a world that is governable through data requires a world that cooperates in data collection and participates in the imaginary of governance that it represents. This paper looks beneath the (aspirational) epistemic regime of viral surveillance to examine the political norms and relationships that its imperatives of data collection are calling into being. I argue that the imagination of the arena of pandemic risk as global in nature—as knowing no country—and the corollary that risk can only be known and governed in the universalist idiom of a science that likewise “knows no country” has been advanced as a kind of global constitutionalism. I examine controversy around scientific access to H5N1 flu virus genomic data, showing how the norms of scientific practice have displaced equity claims rooted in national interest and sovereignty. I argue that the normative and jurisdictional contours of global risk are not merely the political expression of risk knowledge—what Ulrich Beck has described as “forced cosmopolitanization”—but are taking form as a global constitutional realignments around scientifically authorized imaginations of future risk and corollary tensions between scientific and political sovereignty.