This week our favourite blogger, Jonty Pearce, is tickled by the playful nature of us Brits
I doubt that the Natural Environment Research Council realised what a furore they would raise when they decided to hold a national vote to find a name their new £200m Polar Research Vessel. Undoubtedly a serious and formal group of scientists, they failed to take into account the playfulness of the British public’s maverick streak that loves to poke fun at authority. The power of social media may also have come as a lesson to other authorities than NERC – when James Hand, a former BBC presenter, found the list of the possible names already suggested on the NERC website really funny he decided to ‘throw one into the ring’ – and his flippant ‘Boaty McBoatface’ moniker joined the race, triggering a huge support movement. Catching just the right tone, the name went stratospheric.
Other sensible suggestions had been RRS Pingu, RRS Usain Boat and RRS David Attenborough, but when James’s sense of humour was tickled by the suggestion ‘Clifford The Big Red Boat’ on the website list the poor lad could not restrain himself. ‘Boaty’ rose to exceed the second placed RRS Henry Worsley by 25,000 votes causing the authorities to panic, concerned at the scenario of such a flagship vessel potentially having to radio ‘Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. This is the RRS Boaty McBoatface. We are trapped by ice’ to the international rescue community. They swiftly had second thoughts about the wisdom of the naming process and intervened. Science Minister Jo Johnson announced that although the public provided some ‘truly inspirational and creative names’, there might be ‘more suitable’ names. Just days before Sir David Attenborough turned 90, it was announced that the vessel would be named after the world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster who promptly confirmed that he was ‘truly honoured’ by the decision.
This is, of course, a correct and appropriate decision, and both Sir David and his soon to be launched namesake can be described as national treasures. James Hand generously acquiesced that the name was a fitting and excellent choice, and the Boaty McBoatface supporters were mollified by the announcement that one of the remotely operated sub-sea vehicles would carry the name in recognition of the vote. Despite this news the maverick trend simmers on with the suggestion that ‘Subby McSubface’ might be a more suitable name for such a vehicle. Where will it end? If Trinity House launched a new Welsh navigational mark support vessel could it be called ‘Buoy O’Boyo’? If the UK Borders Agency commissioned another much needed patrol boat would it be named ‘Jammy Sandwichcutter’, ‘Fuzzship’, or even ‘Seaplod’?
So, was the process a triumph of public engagement or a PR disaster? Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee are investigating whether the public engagement project around the search for a name had been a success or a failure as an example of science communication. It must be highlighted that it was found it necessary to make the backtracking announcement that the ‘Name Our Ship’ campaign was not a straight competition, duly affirming that the final decision would be NERC’s alone so that the chosen name would be both ‘inspirational and fit with the ship’s mission’. The names put forward by the public would be regarded as suggestions only. To the two million plus public visitors to the ‘Name our Ship’ website (where there were 50,000 viewings of the video detailing the vessel’s capability), this response must have felt like a slap in the face with a wet herring. It is clear that this group of scientists naively underestimated both the level of interest and, in particular, the strength of social media. Perhaps it is fortunate that the organisation that commissioned #NameOurShip did not carry the slightly different title ‘Natural Environment Research Department’ – the acronym thereby spelled out might send an unfortunate, though perhaps accurate, label.
The lesson learned is: Beware the British public – they don’t take prisoners!