In Defense of Boaty McBoatface
By Gil McRae, FWRI Director
In 2016 Britain’s National Environmental Research Council (NERC) decided to hold a public naming contest for its new $300 million polar research vessel. The NERC is an organization established by Royal Charter to coordinate environmental and earth sciences research and the new ship, due to its dedicated scientific mission, would be given the prefix RRS (Royal Research Ship). In its press release announcing the online poll, the NERC suggested a few names that might be appropriate for the new state-of-the-art research vessel including Shackleton, Endeavor and Falcon. When the online poll closed after one month there was a runaway winner with over 124,000 votes: RRS Boaty McBoatface. Boaty had gathered more than four times as many votes as the second-place finisher. Other top vote getters included: RRS It’s Bloody Cold Out Here and RRS Clifford the Big Red Boat (mock-ups of the ship had been shown with a red hull). In the end, the NERC chose none of these, opting for the more respectable RRS Sir David Attenborough. As a concession to democracy, NERC did name one of its autonomous underwater vehicles Boaty McBoatface (perhaps Subby McSubface was taken?). So, when it came to science, the cultural powerhouse that has given us The Ministry of Silly Walks, Mr. Bean, Benny Hill and the lumberjack song was incongruously averse to informality.
It is clear from this case that humor (or is it humour?) with the express purpose of mocking stodgy government science was a galvanizing force that made millions of folks aware of NERC and its polar research program who would have otherwise not have engaged at all. I suspect that many folks also relished the chance to rail against the formality of science, especially in the United Kingdom, home of the world’s oldest national scientific institution: the Royal Society (founded 1660). In the Royal Society’s early years, science was the exclusive purview of the monied elite and absent support from the monarchy it admitted more wealthy non-scientists than scientists just to pay the bills. By 1800 seven out of ten members were wealthy non-scientists. So, in the UK there is plenty of scientific mocking material.
In response to the naming contest gone awry, the UK Parliament formed an inquiry into the issue and the state of scientific communication in general (if you are interested you can watch it here: https://goo.gl/EUdLFf). One of the more stunning statistics from the inquiry is the reach that twitter hashtags associated with the naming contest had. The hashtag #nameourship reached 23 million twitter users while the hashtag #boatymcboatface reached an astonishing 214 million twitter users. These numbers are even more impressive when considering that the total number of monthly twitter users at the time was just over 300 million.
What are we to make of the rebuffed RRS Boaty McBoatface? People like to have fun and humor has a way of engaging people regardless of background, culture, or worldview. Many of the most successful marketing programs use humor to engage customers. Science, more than any other discipline except perhaps accounting and certain highly invasive medical specialties, is notoriously inaccessible and largely humor-free. Over 22 years of holding our MarineQuest annual open house at FWRI Headquarters in St. Petersburg we have learned that humor is by far the best way to engage kids and get them interested in science. Over the years, the number of silly costumes, funny stories, interactive games and generally goofy unfettered FWC staff has grown and reached thousands of kids who would not have sat still for a five-minute scientific PowerPoint. While I am sure the RRS Attenborough has a dedicated following, think of the millions of kids around the world who would want to follow the adventures and scientific exploits of the RRS Boaty McBoatface.
To many, science is still viewed as a distant, inaccessible discipline. But science is no different than any other human endeavor, fraught with failure, intrigue, personal biases, rivalries, and believe it or not -humor. As scientists working in public service, it is part our job to figure out the best way to connect people with science. Humor is a good place to start. If you remain unconvinced, consider the name of one of the world’s most popular tagged humpback whales: Mr. Splashy Pants.