Why Our Science Institutions Fail Us: The Case Of Boaty McBoatface

24/03/2016 16:50 | Updated 25 March 2017

Boaty McBoatface.
Not a name easily forgot.
You might laugh. You might find it silly.
Yet you would remember.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has a new £200 million state of the art Polar research vessel. One of its many roles will be to monitor climate change in the rapidly adjusting environments of Earth's polar regions. This is important research in a warming world that has already passed the 400 parts per million atmospheric CO2 level, and is undergoing a mass species extinction. Flooding, droughts, and food insecurity all hinge on our collective ability to comprehend how a planet ecologically adjusts to warming. Important answers to these questions lie in the poles. The science matters, and NERC is doing a fantastic job gathering environmental information from these delicate regions, employing a highly skilled, dedicated team of scientists. Communicating this science effectively to the public is crucial if society is to act upon the research knowledge gained.

In an attempt to engage a wider audience in their work, NERC asked the public to suggest and vote on names for the new ship. The one most popular, by an overwhelming majority, is Boaty McBoatface. Unfortunately, this name is probably going to be overruled and rejected due to being 'silly'. If the name is dropped, it clearly demonstrates that scientific institutions fundamentally fail to understand how to engage the public. But why is this?

The problem may lie in a lack of understanding of who the mass public are. Science outreach programs reflect their designers. Usually highly educated graduates from privileged backgrounds. A glance around a postgraduate room in a university commonly reveals a dominance of white, male, middle to upper class backgrounds, replete with unbroken homes in pleasant suburbia, parents who shop in M&S and go on skiing holidays. When teams like this engage a wider public whose reality is far from their privileged idyll, a dejected lack of success often results; perhaps blamed on a scientifically apathetic or wilfully ignorant public. But the truth is the wider public are hungry for real science.

A new type of science communication is desperately needed. Perhaps it will only happen when academia and science institutions genuinely smash the walls of their ivory towers and become open to people from more diverse walks of life. Of course, for this to occur, education must be affordable for all. Free is affordable, but might require cancelling some bombing runs and submarine renewals. The Open University leads the way here, both in student diversity and (in Scotland) financial support.

Boaty McBoatface is an example of how, accidentally, a science institution has successfully engaged the wider public, and are humoured but dismissive of the result. Terms like silly, rude, uncouth are beginning to surface by figures like Ex-First Sea Lord West (someone you are unlikely to bump into while cashing a job seekers allowance cheque or shopping in the reduced section of Lidl). These reactions highlight the condescending superiority within the science community and privileged classes regarding the public. Many scientists would reject this, stating they conduct lots of public outreach. But I wonder whether they engage drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes, unemployed, marginalised... or do they just mean the 'nice' 'acceptable' middle class public who attend science festivals?

But they are wrong. Entirely. Name a research vessel 'RSS Henry Worsely' or 'RSS Observer' and the majority of people won't even be aware of its existence. Far less care about what science it conducts, or the value and meaning of that research. People across the population will care about Boaty McBoatface; and the research it does. Particularly as they were responsible for naming it, albeit with a smile and a laugh. Science should not be concerned about silliness: what should matter is the most effective method of connecting the tax paying public who fund this vital science, with the results. If this goal can be made easier by a silly name - then let's do it.

NERC have been given a gift horse in the suggested name of Boaty McBoatface. A fantastic branding opportunity to engage a full spectrum of public in the exciting and important work they do. I really hope they realise, and take advantage of this chance. Not dismiss it as foolish banter and nonsense from an irresponsible proletariat. People are not irresponsible, or silly, in their support for the name. They are simply being playful. For the sake of the planet, let's hope NERC is playful right back and runs with the fun. I want to hear the Queen announce "I hereby name this ship, Boaty McBoatface".

Adrienne Macartney runs the public engagement project 'Science Hooker', and is a final year PhD student at the University of Glasgow where she studies the loss of the early atmosphere of Mars, and what lessons this loss might provide for tackling climate change.
Twitter: @Science_Hooker
Facebook: Scihooker