A quick post to air something which crossed my iPad this morning, the ongoing story of Boaty McBoatface. I’m not sure if you have been following the story but it raises some interesting questions about public engagement with research.
To provide a little bit of background, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), which is funded via public monies, commissioned a new polar research vessel which, in effect, has cost the UK tax payer £200m. Several months ago NERC ran a national poll to name the ship and on Sunday it was announced that the winning name, which received 124,109 votes was Boaty McBoatface. This was four times as many votes as the next suggestion. However there is now a suggestion that, despite winning the poll, Boaty McBoatface may never grace the oceans because of the potentially frivolous nature of the name.
Presumably the poll was organised as a means of engaging people with the research scientists working on the vessel would be carrying out and this is exactly what it has done so what message does it send to now ignore the winning name? We would love you to make suggestions and vote but we will only use your suggestions if we approve of them. Whilst I accept that there may be a need for some level of censorship how far does that go? Jo Johnson, the science minister, is quoted as saying:
“The new royal research ship will be sailing into the world’s iciest waters to address global challenges that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, including global warming, the melting of polar ice and rising sea levels, …….That’s why we want a name that lasts longer than a social media news cycle and reflects the serious nature of the science it will be doing.”
Would a fun name really undermine the work that is being carried out on board or would it cause a stir of excitement amongst people wherever the vessel travelled? I have a vision of hundreds of school children following its voyages and getting interested in the work that it is being undertaken, of hundreds of ways in which its name could be used to communicate and inspire a new generation of scientists. It’s not just about the children either – I’m pretty certain that adults would develop an affinity with Boaty as well.
The Guardian article suggests that choosing Boaty McBoaty would ‘enrage the scientific establishment’ – really? I’m wondering how representative ‘the establishment’ is of the wider scientific community and how much this statement represents the very disconnect researchers are trying to overcome. I suspect that for every ‘enraged’ scientist there will have been another one who actually voted for Boaty and I suspect I may know one or two of them.
So where does this sorry tale leave public engagement when a publicly funded Research Council undertakes a process of engagement and when it doesn’t like the outcome seeks to ignore it. Some lessons for us all in this I think.