When scientists ran a public poll to determine the name of their new £200 million polar research vessel, they probably hadn’t considered the possibility of the winner being Boaty McBoatface. If they’d realised this in advance, there might have been a better get-out clause.
As things stand, opinions are divided about whether we should really crack a bottle of champagne over the bow of Boaty McBoatface. For me, it’s a warning of a wider issue: if you are going to ask for society’s views on your research, you have to be prepared to listen to their answers.
Public participation in research is central to the concept of food sovereignty, in which people have a right to define their own food and agricultural system. As part of this, the direction of agricultural research would be decided with a greater input from the wider public.
We do, however, have to ask the question of whether the wider public are more likely than current decision makers to direct research in ways which will benefit society. If research is ‘democratised’ will some entire research programmes end up as Boaty McBoatfaces? And if it’s what society wants, does this matter? They are our ultimate funders and the people whose lives we are working to improve.
In the mid-20th century, Bob Edwards faced criticism from his colleagues when he discussed his work with the public. Now it seems that the ‘father of IVF’ was ahead of his time – public engagement is has become fashionable, and researchers are expected to communicate their work beyond the scientific community.
We’ve come a long way, and maybe involving society in decisions about research is the next step. We just need to think twice about making commitments which involve asking questions to which we might not like the answer.
If you believe that the wider public should direct the research agenda, you have to be prepared to go with their decisions. Even if they’re Boaty McBoatface.