Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

Harris has traveled to all seven continents for NPR. His reports have originated from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest, the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis), and Japan to cover the nuclear aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
In 2010, Harris' reporting revealed that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. That revelation led the federal government to make a more realistic assessment of the extent of the spill.

Harris covered climate change for decades. He reported from the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and including Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Harris was a major contributor to NPR's award-winning 2007-2008 "Climate Connections" series.

Over the course of his career, Harris has been the recipient of many prestigious awards. Those include the American Geophysical Union's 2013 Presidential Citation for Science and Society. He shared the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Communication Award and was a finalist again in 2011. In 2002, Harris was elected an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. Harris shared a 1995 Peabody Award for investigative reporting on NPR about the tobacco industry. Since 1988, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Harris three times with its science journalism award.

Before joining NPR, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, Harris was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues related to the nuclear weapons lab in Livermore. He started his career as an AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow at the now-defunct Washington (DC) Star.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, and is past president of the National Association of Science Writers. He serves on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A California native, Harris returned to the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2012, to give a commencement address at Crown College, where he had given a valedictory address at his own graduation. He earned a bachelor's degree at the school in biology, with highest honors.

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Shots - Health News
1:18 pm
Thu May 15, 2014

Medicine Needs More Research On Female Animals, NIH Says

Sex can matter, whether you're looking at drug side effects, the response to treatment, or the progression of a disease.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 2:22 pm

Many potential new drugs look like they could be big winners — at least when judged by how well they work in mice or other lab animals. Over the years, there have been a number of promising cancer "cures," possible Alzheimer's treatments, and candidate drugs for holding back the ravages of various degenerative diseases.

But, time after time, these great promises fade away once the potential treatments are tried in people. There are lots of reasons for that. Humans aren't rodents, for starters.

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Shots - Health News
11:03 pm
Mon May 5, 2014

Even Penguins Get The Flu

Adelie penguins frolic in Antarctica, unaware of a flu virus that circulates among them.
Peter & J. Clement Science Source

Originally published on Wed May 7, 2014 3:35 pm

When you think of bird flu, you may conjure up images of chickens being slaughtered to stem an outbreak, or of migrating ducks, which can carry flu viruses from one continent to the next. Well, it's time to add penguins to your list of mental images.

Yes, Adelie penguins, which breed in huge colonies on the rocky Antarctic Peninsula, also harbor a version of the avian influenza virus, according to a study published in the journal, mBio.

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Shots - Health News
3:04 pm
Fri April 25, 2014

Family Tree Of Pertussis Traced, Could Lead To Better Vaccine

False-color transmission electron micrograph of a field of whooping cough bacteria, Bordetella pertussis.
A. Barry Dowsett Science Source

Originally published on Mon April 28, 2014 6:51 am

Whooping cough was once one of the leading killers of babies around the world. Now that it's largely controlled with a vaccine, scientists have had a chance to figure out how the disease came into being in the first place.

That story is told in a study published online this week in the journal mBio. And it turns out that whooping cough arose quite late in human history.

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Shots - Health News
1:14 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

First Embryonic Stem Cells Cloned From A Man's Skin

This mouse egg (top) is being injected with genetic material from an adult cell to ultimately create an embryo — and, eventually, embryonic stem cells. The process has been difficult to do with human cells.
James King-Holmes Science Source

Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 11:20 am

Eighteen years ago, scientists in Scotland took the nuclear DNA from the cell of an adult sheep and put it into another sheep's egg cell that had been emptied of its own nucleus. The resulting egg was implanted in the womb of a third sheep, and the result was Dolly, the first clone of a mammal.

Dolly's birth set off a huge outpouring of ethical concern — along with hope that the same techniques, applied to human cells, could be used to treat myriad diseases.

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Shots - Health News
3:06 pm
Fri April 11, 2014

Ebola Drug Could Be Ready For Human Testing Next Year

In this colored transmission electron micrograph, an infected cell (reddish brown) releases a single Ebola virus (the blue hook). As it exits, the virus takes along part of the host cell's membrane (pink, center), too. That deters the host's immune defenses from recognizing the virus as foreign.
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Science Source

Originally published on Fri April 11, 2014 7:13 pm

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is terrifying because there's no drug to treat this often fatal disease. But the disease is so rare, there's no incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to develop a treatment.

Even so, some small companies, given government incentives, are stepping into that breach. The result: More than half a dozen ideas are being pursued actively.

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Shots - Health News
2:44 am
Tue April 8, 2014

How Mouse Studies Lead Medical Research Down Dead Ends

I'm not trying to lead you astray. It's just that scientists are not skeptical enough about their mouse studies.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 7:59 am

Most experimental drugs fail before they make it through all the tests required to figure out if they actually work and if they're safe. But some drugs get fairly far down that road, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, based on poorly conducted studies at the outset.

Medical researchers reviewing this sorry state of affairs say the drug-development process needs serious improvement.

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Shots - Health News
12:22 pm
Sun April 6, 2014

Simple Blood Test To Spot Early Lung Cancer Getting Closer

An artist's illustration shows lung cancer cells lurking among healthy air sacs.
David Mack Science Source

Originally published on Mon April 7, 2014 12:32 pm

One of these days, there could well be a simple blood test that can help diagnose and track cancers. We aren't there yet, but a burst of research in this area shows we are getting a lot closer.

In the latest of these studies, scientists have used blood samples to identify people with lung cancer.

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Shots - Health News
4:00 pm
Thu March 27, 2014

Custom Chromo: First Yeast Chromosome Built From Scratch

The research team used yeast chromosome No. 3 as the model for their biochemical stitchery. Pins and white diamonds in the illustration represent "designer changes" not found in the usual No. 3; yellow stretches represent deletions.
Lucy Reading-Ikkanda

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 6:03 pm

Using the labor of dozens of undergraduate students, scientists have built a customized yeast chromosome from scratch.

It's a milestone in the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology, where organisms can be tailored for industrial use. In this case, the near-term goal is to understand the genetics of yeast, and eventually the genetics of us.

This was quite an undertaking. Yeast have about 6,000 genes packed in 16 tidy bundles called chromosomes. Each chromosome is an enormous molecule of DNA packed in proteins.

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Shots - Health News
11:18 am
Wed March 26, 2014

Fewer People Are Getting Infections In Hospitals, But Many Still Die

iStockphoto

Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 7:24 pm

Hospital-acquired infections continue to be a big problem in health care, with 4 percent of patients getting a new infection while hospitalized, a study finds. And 11 percent of those infections turn deadly.

It's the first time that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has attempted to catalog all hospital infections, not just the infections with germs on their watch list. Researchers surveyed 183 hospitals nationwide, emphasizing smaller community hospitals.

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Shots - Health News
3:18 pm
Thu March 20, 2014

Never Mind Eyesight, Your Nose Knows Much More

Your schnoz deserves more respect.
epSos .de/Flickr

Originally published on Mon March 24, 2014 7:14 am

The human eye can distinguish more than 2 million distinct colors. But scientists studying smell now say they have their vision colleagues beat: The human nose, they say, can distinguish more than a trillion different smells.

Yes, trillion with a T.

That new figure displaces a much more modest estimate. Until now, smell researchers have been saying the human nose can distinguish about 10,000 smells.

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Shots - Health News
3:23 pm
Thu March 13, 2014

Google's Flu Tracker Suffers From Sniffles

Adam Cole NPR

Originally published on Fri March 14, 2014 10:27 am

If you want to know what's up with the flu at the moment, you have a few choices: You can get the latest information at Google Flu Trends. Or you can get the official word from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is based on data that's by now a couple of weeks old.

But a report in the journal Science finds that quicker isn't necessarily better.

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Science
2:03 am
Thu February 13, 2014

Ancient DNA Ties Native Americans From Two Continents To Clovis

Until recently, finding characteristic stone and bone tools was the only way to trace the fate of the Clovis people, whose culture appeared in North America about 13,000 years ago.
Sarah L. Anzick Nature

Originally published on Thu February 13, 2014 7:01 pm

The mysterious Clovis culture, which appeared in North America about 13,000 years ago, appears to be the forerunner of Native Americans throughout the Americas, according to a study in Nature. Scientists have read the genetic sequence of a baby from a Clovis burial site in Montana to help fill out the story of the earliest Americans.

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Science
3:45 pm
Tue February 11, 2014

Economist Says Best Climate Fix A Tough Sell, But Worth It

The Climate Casino by William Nordhaus looks at the economics and politics of global warming.
Courtesy of Yale University Press

Originally published on Wed February 12, 2014 5:24 pm

We often talk about climate change as a matter of science. But the biggest questions are really about money. How much would it cost to fix the problem — and what price will we pay if we don't?

The man who invented the field of climate economics 40 years ago says there's actually a straightforward way to solve the problem. William Nordhaus has written a book that lays it out in simple terms.

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Shots - Health News
2:56 pm
Wed January 29, 2014

Neanderthal Genes Live On In Our Hair And Skin

Originally published on Thu January 30, 2014 10:11 am

Neanderthals died out long ago, but their genes live on in us. Scientists studying human chromosomes say they've discovered a surprising amount of Neanderthal DNA in our genes. And these aren't just random fragments; they help shape what we look like today, including our hair and skin.

These genes crept into our DNA tens of thousands of years ago, during occasional sexual encounters between Neanderthals and human ancestors who lived in Europe at the time. They show up today in their descendants, people of European and Asian descent.

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Science
2:44 am
Wed January 22, 2014

Ancient And Vulnerable: 25 Percent Of Sharks And Rays Risk Extinction

Each year, 6 to 8 percent of the global population of sharks and rays gets caught, scientists say. The fish can't reproduce fast enough to keep pace
Mike Johnston Flickr

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 8:23 am

There are more than a thousand species of sharks and rays in the world, and nearly a quarter of them are threatened with extinction, according to a new study. That means these ancient types of fish are among the most endangered animals in the world.

This word comes from a Swiss-based group called the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains the so-called Red List of species threatened with extinction.

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