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Has democracy sunk? The uproar over Boaty McBoatface

Britain's National Environment Research Council made waves this March when it tapped the U.K. public to name its new $300 million polar research vessel in an online voting contest. They hoped the tactic would engage thousands of new people with issues of science, perhaps yielding suggestions of great war heroes or influential leaders.

Instead, "Boaty McBoatface" quickly skyrocketed to the top, garnering more than 124,000 votes.

In fact, the jokey entry -- submitted by James Hand of Warwickshire -- went viral, inspiring a social media campaign and crashing the NERC site under a flood of traffic.

On May 6, 2016, however, the NERC shattered hearts across social media by announcing that the 15,000-ton ship -- scheduled to set sail in 2019 -- would not be named Boaty McBoatface after all. Instead, it will honor 89-year-old BBC broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

The selected entry, RRS David Attenborough, came in fourth place in the public voting, just above "RRS It's Bloody Cold Here," "RRS Usian Boat," and "RRS Boatimus Prime."

Some voters took to Twitter to express outrage as their collective will was ignored.

A few Twitter users were so disgruntled, they argued that the NERC's decision risked long-term implications for science as a discipline:

To the NERC's credit, the people's will was not wholly ignored. Following the announcement of "Attenborough," the organization floated something of a consolation prize to the many voters who participated: one of the ship's robotic subs will bear the name Boaty McBoatface.

For all the social media mayhem it ignited, some believe the NERC actually succeeded in engaging huge numbers of people in matters of science. The BBC notes the competition drew more than two million visitors to the NERC website, and tens of thousands watched a video about the polar ship.

In fact, members of the UK's House of Commons Science and Technology Committee are meeting next Tuesday to discuss whether the online voting campaign was a PR nightmare or a huge public engagement success, making it entirely possible that the case of Boaty McBoatface could be immortalized as a template for future science communications.

And in that sense, Boaty McBoatface's legacy could very well be a much larger vessel after all.

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