The Lessons of Boaty McBoatface

The campaign to name Britain’s research ship was a surprising success. But what’s next?

An artistic rendering of the remotely operated sub-sea vehicle henceforth known as Boaty McBoatface (Natural Environment Research Council)

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.”

And when you don’t think through these things, you end up sitting in a drab House of Commons conference room, offering hazy plans to quizzical lawmakers about how you’ll sustain public interest in your scientific research by broadcasting footage from a yellow submarine named Boaty.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. By many measures, of course, the Name Our Ship campaign was successful. The contest—boosted by the stellar submission of Boaty McBoatface’s creator, James Hand—raised widespread awareness of NERC and its vital work. David Attenborough is certainly a worthy namesake for the vessel. And Boaty McBoatface lives on. It lives on in the name of a yellow undersea vehicle that the Sir David Attenborough will dispatch to the deepest waters of the Arctic and Antarctic to assess the consequences of climate change. It lives on in its offspring around the world: Horsey McHorseface, Trainy McTrainface, Ice Ice Boaty. It lives on as a public-relations case study and a cautionary tale about the limits of democracy.

Yet Boaty, as an irreverent, inspirational idea, is a shadow of its former self. By the time it reached Parliament on Tuesday, it had been drained of nearly all the whimsy that captivated people around the world in the first place. Sure, those assembled delighted in seasoning the discussion with puns like “all hands on deck” and “walk the plank.” But at the start of the session, Nicola Blackwood, the committee chair, asked how NERC was planning to harness the intense interest in its competition—the hundreds of thousands of people who voted, and the millions more around the world who followed the Boaty McBoatface saga—to “do a better job about spreading excitement about science” among the public. And Blackwood didn’t receive very exciting answers.

When one lawmaker, Matt Warman, asked how NERC would capitalize in the long term on the formidable Boaty “brand,” Wingham, the NERC chief executive, vaguely suggested setting up a video stream to chronicle the submarine’s “many adventures” aboard the Sir David Attenborough.

“We’re just really starting to think seriously about what is the answer to your question,” Wingham admitted. (Granted, the ship won’t be operational until 2019 and the competition to name it closed only a month ago, but a month is an exceedingly long time in the world of viral PR campaigns.)

Another witness outlined the challenges in building on the Boaty phenomenon. “If you ask a fairly superficial, low-stakes question [like what to name a ship], you’ll get a different type of public engagement ... from the more serious, more substantive questions that the research council sometimes needs to engage the public in”—controversial questions like whether geoengineering is advisable to combat climate change, said James Wilsdon, a professor at the University of Sheffield. (The members of the committee burst into laughter when Wilsdon disclosed that he himself had voted for the name Boaty McBoatface.)

“So how do you make sure that you have a coherent system that first of all captures the interest and the imagination, as I think this competition has, but then retains that interest and makes sure that when the more difficult questions come along, you already have that captured audience?” Blackwood asked.

Wilsdon argued that thanks to social media, there is far more dialogue between the public and scientists on scientific issues than there was, say, 25 years ago. NERC’s Julia Maddock noted that more than half a million people had visited the naming-contest website, that the #BoatyMcBoatface hashtag had reached 214 million Twitter users, and that 60,000 people had viewed videos about the research vessel’s mission. “We’ve got evidence that they did get real science, not just fluff,” she said.

Then another lawmaker, Stella Creasy, addressed the holes in the testimony thus far. “I just want to tease out a bit more what plans you’ve got for using that interest that you’ve generated in the boat and NERC to actually get people into science and actually participating in scientific endeavor?” she said.

NERC is only now turning to these questions, Wingham repeated. Wilsdon proposed cultivating substantive public debate around Boaty by encouraging exploration of “the links between polar research, diplomatic agendas, and business agendas.”

“What you’re talking about … is essentially using this interest to start conversations with people about possibly contentious issues,” Creasy said. “The challenge [is that] in this instance ultimately the decision-making ability was taken away from the public” when NERC chose to name the ship something other than Boaty McBoatface. (To its credit, NERC informed participants in the fine print that the organization’s chief executive would have final say on the name of the ship.)

Creasy wondered whether that move would discourage people from engaging with the Sir David Attenborough’s scientific work: “The concern about getting people involved is them understanding what power they do have to influence what the boat does—from what it’s called, to where it goes, to what research it does, to how the research is used.” Even if their power in these matters is quite limited, those delegating the power should be upfront about that.

In unveiling NERC’s naming contest back in March, Science Minister Jo Johnson declared, “With the eyes of the world on this ship, this campaign will give everyone across the UK the opportunity to feel part of this exciting project and the untold discoveries it will unearth.” At the time, his words may have seemed overblown. And then, astonishingly, the eyes of the world did turn to the ship, and people across the U.K. did come to feel part of the project. That this happened is a tribute to NERC and the good people of the Internet. But it’s difficult to say that NERC’s response so far to that surge of interest amounts to an “incredible success.”