Poles apart

This is a guest post by Tom Sheldon, Senior Press Manager at the SMC.

In March 2016 the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) launched a public engagement exercise to name a new ship. Former BBC journalist James Hand tossed the name Boaty McBoatface into the ring – and we were smitten. The thought of a £200m scientific research ship bearing such a ridiculous name was hilarious and irresistible, and it caught the public imagination. The poll received an unprecedented number of votes. In the end, NERC found a compromise by naming the onboard sub Boaty McBoatface and the ship after David Attenborough*.

As science writer Roger Highfield says: “NERC has come up with a nice solution here with the tribute to the Greatest Living Englishman for the polar research ship and acknowledgement of the public vote in the name for the sub – after all, by naval tradition, submarines are usually referred to as boats. Moreover, they have generated a huge amount of interest in polar science along the way, and it has been fun too….what’s not to like?”

Exactly. What’s not to like? The entire nation now knows about a big, state of the art floating laboratory. And they’ve all heard of NERC! How many other scientific research councils could they name?

Better still, the story quickly went viral, and was reported all over the mainstream media. Presenter Evan Davis signed off the BBC2 flagship news programme with “Newsy McNewsnight”. There is now a horse called Horsey McHorseface. It even featured on Channel 4’s Gogglebox.

But at the Science Media Centre we have watched with dismay as a gloriously light-hearted public debate has been transformed by some into an exercise in damage control and reputation management. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me to hear that some government officials are being a bit po-faced about this and looking for someone to blame. But not only does that footing put them at odds with the general public who have enjoyed the whole thing; it removes the human touch from the whole story. We like it when our politicians and officials laugh along with us. It makes a connection – the very connection every public engagement exercise seeks to achieve.

And this was refreshing for science, whose public engagement exercises can occasionally be a bit worthy, and which work hard to identify and engage those ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. Boaty McBoatface may not have gone as planned, but in its magnificent chaos it avoided the former and achieved the latter – all by relinquishing some control to the masses and indulging the absurdity.

Every day at the SMC we work on the stories really worth getting vexed about: the myths about GM spread by agenda-driven campaigners, maverick commentators issuing dodgy advice on diet, poor government policy making on dredging and badgers. So much of science is at that level – serious, weighty subjects affecting our health, environment and understanding of evidence. But sometimes a story comes along which is just fun, and that’s the time when scientific officialdom has a real chance to connect with the public. We have said before that we don’t want our scientists bland and beige. And neither do we want our Research Councils to be out of touch with the public mood. Alison Robinson, NERC’s director of corporate affairs, hit the nail on the head when she said, “We are pleased that people are embracing the idea in a spirit of fun.”

Clare Matterson, Director of Strategy at the Wellcome Trust, puts it succinctly: “As the saying goes, every time you find some humour in a difficult situation, you win”. If there are any humourless Whitehall officials worrying that this has backfired, pens already in hand to write their ‘lessons learned’ reports, they would do well to remember that.

NERC, by riding this out alongside the rest of us with good grace and laughs, have already won. Boaty may have caught everyone on the hop, but it’s captured our attention, made us laugh, and spawned a new meme – and best of all it’s shown many of those in charge of science to be human, and humorous. In other words, no damage has been done. That could change if officials get their knickers in a twist instead of enjoying this for what it is: the cheerful and irreverent anarchy of the UK public.

A handful may blame NERC for ultimately deciding not to genuflect to the public vote. I don’t. As freelance science communicator Simon Wilde puts it, this ship represents “millions of pounds of taxpayers money in an internationally competitive research environment. This is an opportunity to acknowledge a great science communicator, not give it a daft name for laughs.” And he’s right, but that’s just the point – most ordinary people simply won’t mind either. Will anyone with a flicker of humour be remotely annoyed that the ship wasn’t officially named Boaty? I seriously doubt it. This was not a public consultation into anything really important like whether we should geoengineer the climate or how long embryos should be kept alive for scientific research.

So this was a far cry from being a PR disaster – quite the opposite. And I hope that when the Commons Science and Technology committee hear evidence about NERC’s public engagement next week they do so with the same spirit of wit and levity that has characterised this story until now.

I know the people in comms at NERC and they are fun, approachable and good-hearted.  In other words, they’re normal. So I was thrilled to see that when James Hand tweeted NERC (with tongue slightly in cheek, I hope) to say, “I’m terribly sorry about all of this”, NERC’s head of comms Julia Maddock responded: “No need to be sorry James, we are loving it.”

I hope that feeling hasn’t been lost.

* There is now a petition for David Attenborough to change his name to Boaty McBoatface – 212 signatories at time of writing. Humour is still winning.

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

Source: Science Media Centre UK

Image source: Getty Images

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