View from the fence

Social, environmental and economic issues surrounding GM foods, and the latest news

Words of caution from Boaty McBoatface

8 Comments

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.

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Author: Rebecca Nesbit

I studied for my PhD with the University of York and spent my time chasing migrant butterflies. I have trained bees to detect explosives, written a novel, organised Biology Week for the Society of Biology and visited universities round the world with Nobel Laureates. I am collecting friends to help me save the world. My website is: http://rebeccanesbit.com/

8 thoughts on “Words of caution from Boaty McBoatface

  1. Yes… If literature were democratic, would it all be Dan Brown? “One great mistake made by intelligent people is to refuse to believe that the world is as stupid as it is.” Claudine de Tencin…

  2. PS I suggested ‘Fitzroy’ after Darwin’s captain, as did some others I think.

  3. I approve of Fitzroy. We were thinking that’s what we would call a pet Beagle…

  4. Who gets to decide whether something is ‘good’ – from Dan Brown to Donald Trump – that’s such a difficult question to answer

  5. How many (absolute and relative numbers) people actually voted for a name? Was it representative of the population as a whole? Which socio-economic class(es) were the dominant voters? Is there a relationship between the socio-economic class of the voter and the name they voted for? Does anyone have the time to look into these questions for me? 🙂

    • This information about voters wasn’t collected, and it’s an interesting question of whether it would be appropriate to do so. People would be unwilling to vote if they had to fill in a questionnaire about themselves first.

  6. Do you think that perhaps there was an element of “let’s give the authorities a bloody nose” in this. People feel so divorced from politics that they hit out when they can and there are very few opportunities?

    • It certainly seems to show a level of criticism for those in charge. I suspect lots of people enjoyed thinking ‘they’re really not going to like this’ when they voted.

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