Mr #BoatyMcBoatface was a shipwreck waiting to happen in a world of science with no lighthouses

Blushes all round.

‘Boaty McBoatface’ is the name that has come top in a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) online public poll to name their new £200 million pound research vessel setting sail in 2019. Oops!

An NERC panel must now meet – no doubt in a dark, wood-panelled corner and with cold flannels over faces – to decide whether to accept that ‘the people’ have spoken and live by its new-found democratic principles. Or just be sensible.

I hope the latter.

Democracy will not sink. It will not even be holed below the water-line.

This was a poorly (or brilliantly – depending on your viewpoint) executed PR exercise dressed up as a noble nod towards involving the public.

If they’d really have wanted to use their new ship to float the boat for democracy in science there are better ways they could have done it.

They might have compiled a short-list of names by various means involving the public and then put this list to the vote. This might have given the NERC an opportunity to inform people about the history and achievement of the people on aforementioned short-list.

Alternatively, they could have run a competition for teenagers or adults (not sure why so much science communications has to be focused on people below the age of 18!) to join its first voyage.

The ideas and possibilities are endless.

Now, without wishing to get too caught up in my own rigging it does highlight a wider issue. For I wonder whether organisations like the NERC are really clear about the purpose of such exercises as their public poll before setting out on them?

Come to think of it, are they that clear about the purpose of their wider science communications and public engagement work? Is it to involve, inspire others, engage, entertain, or consult and shape decisions?

Too often they appear to lack a sense of direction, to be blindly pursuing a course they feel they have to rather than one that will serve the public interest. But without a clear purpose and messages to fit, science communications – in fact, any communications – is likely to be rudderless and in danger of heading towards the rocks.

I hope the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will take a deeper dive into this question when it starts its inquiry into science communications?

It should ask the many luminaries that it will no doubt call upon to give evidence (let’s hope it doesn’t get too starry eyed) not just whether they know what their organisation is doing but whether they understand why they are doing it.

Still, no harm done I suppose. Sometimes it’s just what happens when a fish is waterless.

I’m just glad it didn’t happen on my watch.


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