From Gin to Citizen Science

by Leah Guthrie

What we do in our free time often reflects our preoccupations. For a newly growing city like London in the eighteenth century, binge drinking gin served as a favored pastime; especially, among the developing working class who were adjusting from rural life to a crowded industrial society with poor working conditions. Gin was a very cheap antidote to the harsh realities of life with visibly numbing effects. At the height of the Gin Crisis in the 1720s, alcohol-related death rates were steadily climbing while birth rates were dropping to concerning levels. Laws restricting gin access did little to mitigate the damage until economic improvement generated a higher standard of living and new social pastimes, like coffee houses and restaurants that took advantage of the crowded and compact nature of city life (1).

Looking at more recent history and moving from London to the US, we see another reflective pastime transition—television to digital social media platforms. Due to economic gains and a shift from a manufacturing to service economy, with disparate access and timing, Americans gained free time and spent it watching TV. It’s estimated that a person born in 1960 has already watched approximately 50,000 hours of TV by 2010 (1). Of course there are many critiques of the amount of TV that Americans consume, highlighting the associations between watching TV and increased materialism or decreased exercise or real social engagement (2). However, the idea that Americans are content being passive consumers of media was challenged with the emergence of digital social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and relatively new news platforms like the Huffington Post that demonstrate that given the opportunity, many people will choose to participate in media creation and discussion. These interactive platforms, while also supporting deplorable behavior behind a shield of anonymity, enable people to share their ideas and get responses from others unbounded by physical distance and show that people like to create and share knowledge. In his book titled Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky speaks to the idea that the collective free time of Americans in aggregate can be harnessed for the pursuit of collective projects. He refers to collective knowledge of these digital communities as a “cognitive surplus”(1).

Harnessing the cognitive surplus of members in and outside of the scientific enterprise presents an opportunity for collective knowledge building and increasing science literacy, accessibility and interest of the general public. And, tapping into the cognitive surplus of individuals outside of the scientific community is particularly valuable at a time when anti-science sentiments are rising visibly, concerning many members of the scientific community.

The demographics of the anti-vaccination community and recent measles outbreak in the US dismantles the popular belief that anti-science sentiments are confined within specific geopolitical and class boundaries. Of note, Wired Magazine came out with several articles focusing specifically on the anti-vaxxer sentiments within Silicon Valley, which is populated by scientists, technologists, and engineers.

5The diverse nature and sources of anti-science sentiments speaks to the complicated and varied appreciation of science, medicine and technology among the general public. This was highlighted in a recent study published by the National Science Foundation on public attitudes and understanding of science and technology. When survey participants were asked about whether they would be happy if their child became a scientist, the responses were overwhelming positive (3).

However, when asked to self-report their confidence in understanding what scientists or engineers do, the response varied widely, and people were generally less confident in their ability to say what scientists do than engineers (3), highlighting an opportunity for moredialogue and transparency between scientists and non-scientists. Non-scientists generally don’t get to see research in action. Juxtaposing this inaccessibility with popular images of medical research enables a certain level of misrepresentation and speculation of the values, goals and priorities of those conducting medical research in particular.

6Nonetheless, there is a growing number of science-themed YouTube channels and Podcasts created and supported by individuals that are both formally and informally associated with scientific research institutions. This suggests that people are willing, interested and generous enough to spend their free time thinking about, sharing and producing scientific knowledge. The current moment is an opportunity to make use of the collective interest in creating media to transition from a model of science outreach to one of collaboration with interested non-profession scientists or citizen scientists. Outreach efforts are essential for building public science literacy. The key to a collaborative model of science engagement is that in addition to being interactive, it involves shared ownership of the knowledge creation process. It answers the question of what do scientists do and bridges the gap between scientists and non-scientists.

3A collaborative framework has been used to solicit and make use of the cognitive surplus of collectives, most notably in digital journalism platforms. Focusing on the comment section of HuffPost Live, an interactive digital platform, a quick and qualitative assessment of the comment section suggests that there is a core group of commenters that participate consistently, regardless of the segment, as well as a more fluid group of people who participate sporadically and engage in discussions only on specific topics. Both of these groups can make valuable contributions to the discussion. If I were to graph in ranked order the number of comments per commenter for all segments over the past year, I would likely get a left-weighted graph demonstrating that a core group of people make most of the comments, followed by a long tail. For those of us invested in increasing general public support for research, our goal should be to be able to graph participation and interest in science and medical research per institution and per non-institutionally incorporated individuals and get a graph that has a really long tail. The tail would imply that people are participating in medical research on their own terms.

What would this look like in practice? There are many ways to imagine expanding the participation of research to individuals outside of research institutions. There are some notable ways that already exist that go beyond traditional measures of science outreach. A few gems include:

GENSPACE. This biotechnology lab in Brooklyn is open to the general public. Notably, they provide biotech lab skills classes for adults and encourage visitors to come up with their own projects.

4EyeWire. This game developed by MIT scientists, invites people to participate in mapping neural pathways. By playing, participants are actually training artificial intelligence algorithms to improve their mapping ability.

Sci Starter. This website links interested individuals with citizen science projects.

Harnessing some of the collective free time of non-scientists in ways that engage individuals in the scientific processes has tremendous value. A key benefit of collaborative work is that it gives someone who is not participating actively in science-related knowledge development the opportunity to do so at a scale and magnitude suitable for them. Collaborative work between scientists and non-scientists spreads the sense of ownership and value of the work. Increasing the general sense of scientific wonder among non-scientists can foster a sustainable increase in science literacy and interest and can create a dispersed network of people invested in science. Ultimately, greater public support of science through effective public engagement will translate into more scientific funding.


Leah grew up on St. Croix, US Virgin Islands before going off to Swarthmore College. Currently, she is a second-year PhD student at Einstein in the Department of Systems and Computational Biology, studying how the human gut microbiome shapes, and is shaped by, drug metabolism.  Outside of the lab her focus is on making science accessible, fun and a tool for social justice. She is inspired by the intersections between science and technology and looks forward to a career in problem solving. 



1. Shirky, C. 2011. Cognitive surplus: How technology makes consumers into collaborators. New York: Penguin Books.

2. Frey, B.S., Benesch,C and Stutzer, A. 2007. Does watching TV make us happy? Journal of Economic Psychology, Volume 28, Issue 3, Pages 283-313.

3. National Science Board. 2014. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 14-01).

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