On Tuesday, British lawmakers summoned several witnesses to Parliament to account for Boaty McBoatface—or, more accurately, the boat formerly known as such. Days earlier, Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council had announced that it would not be calling the government’s new polar research vessel “Boaty McBoatface,” the people’s overwhelming choice in an online naming contest organized by NERC that attracted global attention. Instead, the $300-million ship would be known as the RRS Sir David Attenborough, the fourth-place entry, named after the beloved British naturalist. It was an ingenious decision: The scientists saved face; the people did not riot. Crisis McCrisisface averted.
The “Name Our Ship” campaign proved an “incredible success,” Duncan Wingham, a climate scientist and NERC’s chief executive, boasted to the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee on Tuesday.
Wingham may be overstating his case. The parliamentary inquiry revealed one important way in which the campaign wasn’t a success: NERC and its partners in the British government don’t appear to have sufficiently planned for the day after launching the naming contest. They invited the public to engage with their project, but then didn’t clearly define what level of engagement they were ultimately seeking—and how to proceed if and when people actually engaged en masse. What’s the point of getting people involved if their involvement stops at voting in an online poll? It’s a bit like asking someone on a date without gaming out what you’ll do if you get a “yes.”