It’s brilliantly ironic that NERC’s most recent public engagement activity is quite likely to become the very definition of ‘missing the boat’. By bringing people into the process of naming its latest research vessel it has done a rather brilliant thing for science communication. It has given everyone a tangible and accessible avenue for engaging with the critical environmental research it funds. A viable trigger for leading the masses towards a better understanding of why taxpayers’ money gets invested in learning more about the world around us. By suggesting it may now veto the public’s crowdsourced decision that ‘Boaty McBoatface’ is the best name for this latest national scientific asset, it will be scoring a huge own goal and missing a rare opportunity.
When NERC first launched its naming campaign it must have done because it wanted to boost public awareness of the projects it funds, and to engage new audiences about the value and impact of public investment in environmental science. To do that it needed to build a following – creating a community of people with which it could have an ongoing dialogue. In essence, it has achieved that. Not necessarily in quite the way it expected but nevertheless, the outcome is the same – a viral success story and a large group of followers engaged with the project. What it needs to do now is harness that collective interest and nurture it, not kill it.
No one can deny that Boaty McBoatface is a silly name and really we should, as a species, be able to do a bit better. But NERC now has two choices. If it vetos the name, it will find itself at the centre of some rather negative national and international publicity about how it gave in to institutional forces and dumped the value public engagement down the drain. It will also cut loose the community of interested parties that are now connected to the story and keen to hear more.
If it formally adopts the name, the story continues in a rather positive light. The media coverage continues to flow, the interest grows, and NERC is seen to be a broad-thinking organisation with which people feel they genuinely want to engage. More importantly, it will be able to use the positive reaction it gets from accepting the public’s rather odd choice as a platform for achieving the very thing it set out to do in the first place. The message is really quite simple – “Clearly is a slightly trivial name for a vessel of such stature but what is in no way trivial is the work it will do and the impact it will deliver. Let’s look more closely at that…..” The public has helped NERC turn a boat into a potential global brand which can be used to amplify the UK’s contribution to environmental science and maintain a following the likes of which it would never achieve through more traditional methods.
So yes, it wasn’t what they had in mind. But in the world of social engagement you simply cannot warranty the outcome. NERC did something brave and something bold and it created something special. Sometimes, these things overtake you no matter how much planning in undertaken but the key is to recognise when that happens, assess the new reality in which you are in, and make it work for you.
If NERC honours its original proposal and stands by the name, it will surely incur a few months if backroom guffawing from those that it never really sought to engage through this process anyway. But will bank years of credible public goodwill, and be seen to have closed the communication gap between research community and broader society. More critically, it will have created a groundswell of public support that can act as a foundation for a much greater understanding of the value of our contribution to global environmental science. Isn’t that what it wanted to achieve in the first place?
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