The Sinking of Boaty McBoatface — And Why It's a Big Problem

The arctic research ship that captured the heart of the internet will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface. And the public is not happy about it.

It looks like Boaty McBoatface won’t set sail after all. The arctic research ship that captured the heart of the internet will be officially named the RRS Sir David Attenborough. It’s a dignified named worthy of research ship... but it’s no Boaty McBoatface.

We’ve covered how Boaty McBoatface became a thing, but ICYMI: the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) asked the internet to name its new boat. Boaty McBoatface was offered by a BBC commentator as a joke and won the contest in a landslide, despite no one really knowing how the name caught on. Parliament was offended by the name’s silliness, but Culture Minister Ed Vaizey defended it as the will of the people. The two opposing parliamentary parties bickered over the political importance of the name Boaty McBoatface, arguing whether or not it would encourage the public to trust politicians. NERC even defended it, saying that they were thrilled with the public’s involvement and creativity. The amount of fuss over such a silly little name was unprecedented with science projects.

But even with all that fuss, Boaty tanked.

official attenborough announcement.jpg

Now, to be fair to the winning name, the RRS Sir David Attenborough is a good name for a research ship. The name RRS Sir David Attenborough was the 4th highest-voted suggestion in the NERC poll.  Attenborough is famous as the creator and narrator of the BBC Life series. Generations of Brits grew up hearing him narrate footage of ocean creatures, plants, and desert animals, similar to how US kids grew up watching Jacques Cousteau talk about squids. Attenborough is an advocate for planet Earth, making him a national treasure in the UK. Plus, he just turned 90, so naming a ship bound for climate research for him makes sense. He was honored by the decision, too:

I am truly honoured by this naming decision and hope that everyone who suggested a name will feel just as inspired to follow the ship’s progress as it explores our polar regions. I have been privileged to explore the world’s deepest oceans alongside amazing teams of researchers, and with this new polar research ship they will be able to go further and discover more than ever before.

The RRS David Attenborough is due to set sail in 2019. It will be operated by the British Antarctic Survey in both the Arctic and the Antarctic oceans and will spend up to 60 days in and around sea ice. It will be the first UK polar research ship with a helipad and a number of on-board laboratories. It will also have remotely operated underwater vehicles -- one of which will be named Boaty McBoatface, as a concession to the poll. It will look like this:

Credit: NERC

Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson released a statement about the decision, saying: “The public provided some truly inspirational and creative names, and while it was a difficult decision I’m delighted that our state-of-the-art polar research ship will be named after one of the nation’s most cherished broadcasters and natural scientists."

All that said, naming the ship the RRS Sir David Attenborough is a disappointment. The NERC poll was the best example of public engagement with scientific research in recent memory. After all of that involvement, NERC earned an immense amount of public trust. By not naming the ship after the public’s choice, NERC is essentially disqualifying the public from any future involvement in the project -- and the public is not happy about it:  

sad merry.jpg

Lord of the Rings’ Merry is crushed.

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The public is not happy. They are petitioning for the name to be changed, and even for Attenborough to legally change his name to Boaty McBoatface. As the parliament ministers worried, public trust in the government has been eroded by this decision. One supporter for the petition literally says as much:“We cannot let the voices of the British public be over-ruled by the political elite once more!”

They have every right to be angry. By welcoming public input into the Boaty McBoatface research ship project project, the public became part of the project. Cutting them out of the project by going against their most beloved choice is an act of distrust. It’s also a step backwards for communicating science to the public, especially since Parliament is investigating NERC for allowing Boaty to top the list in the first place.

Lastly, naming a remote-operated submarine Boaty McBoatface misses the point a bit. A submarine is not a boat. It’s a submarine. That looks like a torpedo. It should be called Subby McSubmarineface or Torpedo McGlugGlug -- or, if that’s still too silly for NERC, Yellow Submarine. Like this one:

Oh well. Naming this ship after a popular public choice is still a step forward for public involvement in science. We just wish it had been the bigger one they’d promised.

All Tweet images courtesy of Twitter. Feature image courtesy of The Daily Dot.

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