• Will Polar Research Vessel Be Named Boaty McBoatface?

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Will Polar Research Vessel Be Named Boaty McBoatface?

Apr 25 2016

Earlier this year, the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) took the decision to allow the public to vote on what to christen its new £200m research vessel, and their invitation was met with unprecedented public popularity. While mainstream interest in such normally niche scientific activities was most definitely welcome, the final moniker upon which the Great British public resoundingly decided is perhaps not.

RRS Boaty McBoatface was the clear winner in the online polls, scooping 124,109 votes. That’s almost four times as many as its closest rival (RRS Poppy-Mai, named after a terminally-ill 16-month-old girl, which garnered 34,371 votes), marking the unusual name as the people’s choice. But will the NERC bend to public will or opt for a more sobering name for its expensive new ship?

Any Publicity is Good Publicity

Normally, water quality research missions in the Arctic and the Antarctic do little to capture the public’s imagination. Therefore, there may be a case to be made for the idea that the goodwill and sense of community that has been engendered by the online vote and the ridiculous name should be embraced. Bob Ward, who is a policy and communications director at the London School of Economics, certainly seems to think so.

“They should stick with the public decision. If a new name is chosen, that is saying: ‘We don’t trust the public’, but people would soon forget about it,” said Ward. “On the other hand, if they keep the name, then the interest in the vessel will also endure. It doesn’t have to be a problem for them. And it makes no difference to the vital work the ship will be carrying out, but it does mean there is likely to be more public interest in that work.”

Meanwhile, Science Media Centre press officer Tom Sheldon also saw the positives and the potential in the Boaty McBoatface campaign.

“The entire nation have been discussing a polar research ship. And they’ve all heard of NERC. How many other scientific research councils could they name?” asked Sheldon. “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. It’s captured our attention, made us laugh, and spawned a new meme. How many science public engagement exercises can you say that about?”

Boaty McBoatface Unlikely to Set Sail Soon

Despite the strength of public opinion, it seems unlikely that chief of the NERC Duncan Wingham will risk upsetting the scientific institution by giving such an expensive vessel such a frivolous name. Indeed, Jo Johnson, the government’s science minister, has already indicated that the Conservatives are unlikely to endorse the winner.

“The new royal research ship will be sailing into the world’s iciest waters to address global challenges that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, including global warming, the melting of polar ice and rising sea levels,” explained Johnson.

“That’s why we want a name that lasts longer than a social media news cycle and reflects the serious nature of the science it will be doing. There are many excellent suggestions among the 7,000 names put forward by members of the public and we’ll make a decision as to which one should be put forward for the royal warrant when we’ve had a chance to review them all.”

In any case, it shouldn’t be too long before Boaty McBoatface – or whatever the ship is eventually named – is setting sail for the southern icy waters of the Antarctic, intent on unearthing new mysteries about our planet. Perhaps it will uncover something similar to the discovery of Mossy McMossface back in 2014, when researchers were able to bring moss back to life after 1,500 years frozen in ice in Antarctica.  

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