Crossing the Line: A Scientist’s Road From Neutrality to Activism

Nathan Phillips, who just ended a 14-day hunger strike, said he was compelled to action by dissatisfaction with academia’s passivity and the fervor of his students.

BOSTON—A broken solar panel that once hung in the window of Nathan Phillips' Boston University office now serves as a message board, propped against the wall next to the professor's desk. Taped to the panel are faded yellow pages from The Daily Free Press, the university's student newspaper—articles from the spring of 1986, when BU student Yosef Abramowitz staged a 14-day hunger strike demanding that the university divest from companies operating under South African apartheid. 

Phillips, an environmental scientist, thinks about Abramowitz a lot these days, ever since he began his own hunger strike two weeks ago, to protest what he says are public health and safety violations related to the construction of a large natural gas compressor station on top of a toxic landfill in Weymouth, outside Boston. 

"He showed me that you can force issues into the spotlight, that hunger strikes can do that," Phillips said of Abramowitz. "He lost the battle, but they won the war."

The hunger strike—which he ended at about 3 p.m. Wednesday afternoon—carried physical risks. Lanky to begin with, the 53-year-old Korean American professor has lost 22 pounds since he stopped eating on Jan. 29, and has been subsisting on unsweetened tea, sea salt and vitamin supplements. 

The protest also carried professional risks. He has been challenged by colleagues and his increasing activism—Phillips has been arrested for non-violent protests against fossil fuel projects three times since October—may lead other scientists, including some potential research collaborators, to question his methods and objectivity.  

Phillips says they are risks he has to take.

"There's really no other recourse that me or others fighting this battle have because the state and federal regulatory and executive agencies have failed the community," he said. "They have washed their hands of this."

An Increasing Sense of Obligation

Over the last decade, Phillips has undergone a radical shift from a scientist careful to maintain an apolitical stance to a researcher who disrupts pipeline construction projects, places his body in front of moving coal trains and occupies the offices of state regulators. It's a change that began gradually, he said, fueled in part by growing disillusionment with aspects of academia, and propelled forward by the students he teaches. 

Like other scientists around the country, he's endured the seeming disdain for science shown by the Trump administration, in particular for climate science, something the president has repeatedly called a "hoax." 

Phillips is not the only scientist to respond by moving toward advocacy, as researchers with a front row seat to the extent and impact of climate change feel an increasing obligation to take on a more active role. Thousands of scientists now participate in the March for Science, an annual demonstration that began soon after Trump's inauguration in 2017.  More than 1,500 scientists recently signed a petition in support of Extinction Rebellion, an environmental organization that leads non-violent protests over climate change. And last fall, 11,000 scientists warned of a looming climate emergency in the journal BioScience

Nathan Phillips in a meeting. Credit: Phil McKenna/InsideClimate News

During his hunger strike, Nathan Phillips was challenged on treading the line between scientist and activist. Some colleagues questioned his ethics, which may have compromised Phillips’ ability to collaborate with fellow researchers. Credit: Phil McKenna/InsideClimate News

The increasing activism by academics is not without precedent. During the Vietnam War social scientists played an active role in the anti-war movement, leading teach-ins and participating in hunger strikes, marches and the occupation of military buildings. 

But for scientists, activism comes with a cost. In the academy, there is an understanding, nearly as old as the scientific method itself, that there is a clear divide between what can be proved scientifically and moral judgment. When scientists engage in advocacy, at some point they cross a line that calls into question their ability to conduct objective research.  Where exactly that line falls—signing a petition, taking part in a march, refusing to eat—is debatable. But the potential impacts, including the denial of tenure, ostracism from peers, or being overlooked for grants or awards, can destroy a career. 

A Wake-up Call He Could Not Ignore

About eight years ago, a researcher Phillips collaborated with was dropped from a study because of what Phillips believes was a demand by a gas company participating in the research. 

"That was crushing," Phillips said. "It was part of a waking up to the realities of corporate" interests.

About the same time, Phillips read an opinion piece written by a grad student in The Daily Free Press, calling for divestment from fossil fuels.    

"I'm sitting in my Department of Earth and Environment, we're doing all of this work on climate science, climate change adaptation, all of this and you get hit with this moral indictment of the university's investments," Phillips said. "You have to make a conscious decision to support it or a conscious decision to ignore it, and I chose to support it."

That December, he wrote an email to the rest of the faculty in his department calling attention to the burgeoning student movement and urging that the department take a stance on the issue.

"It is clear to me that the students are on the right side of this issue," Phillips wrote in the Dec. 5, 2012 email. "And it will be difficult for us as a university to talk-the-talk on sustainability if we don't put our money where our mouth is."

Several of Phillips' colleagues pushed back. In email responses, they noted that some former students worked in the oil and gas sector and that ExxonMobil had in the past sent recruiters to the department. Coming out strongly in favor of divestment, they said, might jeopardize such recruiting.  One faculty member included a gentle reminder that their primary role at the university was as educators. Another noted that an oil company was funding a department research study. Phillips didn't press the issue at the time but he now says he believes it was a clear example of the capture of academia by fossil fuel interests.

"It's a pretty clear statement that the money means there's some limitations on speech," Phillips said.  

The Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station protested the construction of a natural gas compressor in Weymouth, Massachusetts on Jan. 15. Credit: Anna Belle Peevey/InsideClimate News

The Fore River Residents Against the Compressor Station protested the construction of a natural gas compressor in Weymouth, Massachusetts on Jan. 15. The site is located near low-income neighborhoods and could have serious health impacts. Credit: Anna Belle Peevey/InsideClimate News

A month later, in early January 2013, eight students and recent graduates from BU and other area universities were arrested after chaining themselves together at a TransCanada Corporation, now TC Energy Corporation, office in Westborough, Mass., as part of a protest against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. 

"Not only are these students calling for divestment, they're literally chaining themselves to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from happening," Phillips said. "I felt compelled to join them."

Still, he struggled with whether he was willing to go so far as to be arrested. He raised the prospect with a senior faculty member in his department whose advice he respected. The colleague told him not to do it because of the impact it would have on his career, Phillips said, recounting the conversation. 

But on Aug. 18, 2016, Phillips was among the protesters riding in a two-car caravan down Centre Street in West Roxbury, Mass. 

A deep trench ran down the middle of the street where construction workers were laying a large gas pipeline. The drivers of the vehicles came to a stop and Phillips and six other people he had just met got out and quickly walked past construction workers and traffic police to the roadway's median.

There, they descended into a trench at the bottom of which lay a 2-foot diameter steel pipe, a trench they would occupy for the next 30 minutes before police could remove and arrest them, charging Phillips and other protesters with trespassing and disturbing the peace. Phillips and others who contested the arrest were eventually acquitted. 

Descending into the trench, the streetscape noise of car traffic, jackhammers, and the voices of the police officers and construction workers went quiet. Phillips and the other activists held hands and sang songs. Time slowed. He felt calm. 

It was "like a cocoon," Phillips said.

'She Was Always Right'

Activism was not the goal Phillips' parents had set for him. The son of a Korean immigrant and a roofing contractor from Pennsylvania, he grew up in a working class family in West Sacramento, Calif., in the 1970s. 

The family's home and neighborhood were a melting pot of identities and beliefs. Their neighbors were predominantly Mexican American. Phillips' mother, Kyung-Hi Kim Phillips, fled what is now North Korea with her family as a young girl, led Bible study groups, and, like many Korean immigrants, retained strong Confucian values that she imparted to her children.

There was an expectation that Nathan and his two older brothers would do well in school and that they would not do anything to dishonor the family. He excelled in the classroom and on the basketball court, but did not participate in student government or other political activities. In the Phillips family, bringing home a good report card was what earned praise. 

But as a child, Phillips recalled, he went with his mother on trips to the grocery store and sometimes she would be overcharged for an item, just a small amount, perhaps a nickel or a dime. 

His mother would ask about the mistake, and the cashier typically would apologize and provide the correct change. But sometimes, the cashier would say, 'Don't worry about it,' because it was only a small amount of money. That's when his mother would really dig in, Phillips said, telling off the cashier, not for the money but as a matter of principle.  

"She wouldn't lose her temper, but she would hold the line, and she was always right," Phillips said. "She would keep them to their word."

Phillips' activism today reflects that same uncompromising devotion to what he thinks is right.

He is less outraged by the Trump administration, he says, than by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, whose rhetoric on climate leadership doesn't match his actions. Phillips calculates that the compressor station—the target of his hunger strike—would enable carbon emissions equivalent to more than one million vehicles per year. 

Map: Compressor Station Under Protest

The Environmental League of Massachusetts recently gave the Baker Administration an "F" on environmental justice, in part for its mishandling of the permitting process for the Weymouth compressor station and the impact the station is likely to have on the health of surrounding, low income communities.

"There's been people who've spoken out about injustices on the basketball court or the football field and been told basically 'shut up and play,'" Phillips said. "There is a perception that a scientist should shut up and write papers. I'm bucking that."

"I'm a dad," Phillips said. "I'm a scientist. I'm concerned about the future, and these are inseparable parts of a whole person."

A Cost Exacted, An Outcome Unclear 

If he is physically in pain as a result of two weeks without food, he hides it well. Halfway through his strike he stood in the kitchen of his home, a modest single-family suburban house abutting the I-90 Turnpike, mixing a cup of matcha green tea with a healthy dose of sea salt. His eyes shone as he raved about the drink's "brothy" flavor. The 6'2" professor said he hasn't experienced hunger pangs since the first few days of his strike and boasted that he has returned to what he weighed as a senior at River City Senior High School in West Sacramento, when he was a starting forward on the varsity basketball team.

An avid cyclist, Phillips continued to ride nine miles from home to work each day during his hunger strike, but swapped his regular bike for an electric bike to help conserve energy.  More than a form of transportation and exercise, he sees his daily commute as part political activism, pushing back against a car-centric culture. A row of bikes parked neatly in his front yard stand in almost willful defiance to the overpass that overshadows the home.  

Nathan Phillips with his bike. Credit: Phil McKenna/InsideClimate News

Since beginning his hunger strike on Jan. 29, Nathan Phillips has lost 22 pounds. After his last meal, the only things Phillips consumed until Wednesday afternoon were unsweetened tea, sea salt and vitamin supplements. Credit: Phil McKenna/InsideClimate News

While Phillips may emerge from the hunger strike with no lasting health effects, it remains an open question what the impact will be on his academic career. 

Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University and a visiting professor at the university's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, said that Phillips "is not an ivory tower professor, and I mean that as a compliment."

Still, he added, "I think activism can compromise a person's ability to do objective research. There will be some people, likely in his own department, who believe he has crossed a line that professors shouldn't cross."

Some scientists who are outspoken on the issue of climate change, particularly female scientists, have come under attack by climate deniers, and in some cases received threats that have left them worried for their safety. 

Phillips says he has recently been the target of similar attacks and acknowledges that his activism has probably already exacted a professional cost. 

He continues to map gas leaks around Boston, a line of research he helped pioneer, but says he wasn't invited to apply for more recent, larger studies. "There's a lot of work going on with mapping of gas leaks that is well supported and resourced, and I'm not part of any of that," he said. 

Before launching his hunger strike, he said, he was chided during a faculty meeting for his activism, although he would not reveal exactly what was said or who said it. As a tenured professor, he has a certain amount of job security and the comments, he said, did not really bother him. What did bother him was that they were made in front of junior faculty members, who do not yet have tenure, and some graduate students who were also present at the meeting.  

"It's about the subtle or maybe not so subtle signal that that sends to people in a more vulnerable job position about what's politically acceptable," Phillips said.

In another instance, he heard that a senior faculty member from another university with whom he'd been discussing a possible collaboration said it would be better not to partner with Phillips on the project because of his increasing activism.

Jackson, who has known Phillips for more than a decade and collaborated with him on several studies, said that taking a more critical look at Phillips academic work going forward is justified, but he doesn't fault him for his activism.

"If I come out strongly against something personally and then I go do research on it, people have a right to believe that my personal opinions might affect the outcome of my research," Jackson said. "But God love Nathan for standing up for what he believes in."

An Uncertain Outcome

On Tuesday, Phillips announced he was calling off the hunger strike and would begin eating on Wednesday, five days after presenting a series of three demands to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection at a meeting. 

In his demands, Phillips had called for better decontamination of dump trucks leaving the compressor station site, permanent air quality monitoring there and additional asbestos testing of bricks buried deep in the soil.   

At the meeting, Millie Garcia-Serrano, the state DEP's southeast regional director, announced that a temporary air monitoring station was already in place, though some results wouldn't be available until July. She said she would see how the agency could meet the other demands.

"It would pain me as a human being too for you to walk out of here feeling frustrated and to elongate what I know has been I'm sure physical pain," Garcia-Serrano said.  

A spokesman for Enbridge Inc., Max Bergeron, told InsideClimate News on Wednesday, "We are proceeding with construction activities for the Weymouth Compressor Station with public health and safety as our priority...."

Phillips said he is still not satisfied but that, if nothing else, he has intensified pressure on the state agency to "simply do its job."

There is little question that he is now an activist, no matter where one draws the line, and in a very public way.  His mother, now 87, still doesn't know this. But, he said, he plans to tell her, although maybe not about his arrests.  

"I think they would roll their eyes at what I've been doing," Phillips said of his mother and his father, who is recently deceased. "But I think when they when consider why I've done this, they would be proud."

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