Science & Environment

MPs to review 'Boaty' naming process

Artist's impression of ship Image copyright NERC
Image caption The vessel will support UK scientists in the Antarctic and the Arctic

MPs are to review the process that has been used to find a name for the UK's new polar research ship.

Members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee want to discuss whether the public engagement project around the search for a name has been a success or a failure.

A website inviting suggestions attracted huge interest, with "Boaty McBoatface" being the big favourite.

But science minister Jo Johnson is reportedly cool on the idea.

He has said there are "more suitable" names.

Now, the chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) has been called before the Commons committee to give evidence next Tuesday.

Prof Duncan Wingham's agency is responsible for polar science in the UK and ran the online poll. He will be joined by Nerc's head of communications, Julia Maddock.

"Hundreds of thousands of people took part in Nerc's competition to name a new polar research vessel. And they'll want to know whether there's going to be a 'Boaty McVolte-face' on the name," said committee chair, Nicola Blackwood MP.

"My committee wants to explore this as an example of science communication.

"Was it a triumph of public engagement or a PR disaster? We'll also want to know how Nerc intends to build on the mass coverage they've attracted and engage people with the vital polar science that Boaty will be enabling."

Image copyright NERC
Image caption The keel of the new ship is expected to be laid in October

The "Name Our Ship" campaign was not a straight competition. From the outset, it was made clear that the final decision would be Nerc's and that the chosen name should be inspirational and fit with the ship's mission.

The names put forward by the public would be regarded as "suggestions" only.

No-one foresaw that so many people would want to get involved or that a humorous suggestion would prove so popular. James Hand, the former BBC presenter who originated Boaty, even apologised for his idea.

Nonetheless, the reaction to the campaign was immense. More than two million visitors went to the website. The short video detailing what the vessel would do was viewed some 50,000 times.

Commentators have been divided on what should happen next - whether Nerc should honour public sentiment, or settle on a name that will outlive the social media frenzy.

The council had asked a special panel to convene next week to choose the name, but this group was disbanded before it even had a chance to meet.

A final decision on the name of the polar ship is due to be announced by Mr Johnson in the next few weeks.

Nerc will want the matter settled before it begins publicising the construction of the vessel, and in particular before the ship's keel is laid in October.

Image copyright NERC
Image caption The £200m, 15,000-tonne, 128m-long vessel is being built at Cammell Laird on Merseyside

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