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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6:06pm

Fri July 11, 2014
Shots - Health News

Feds Tighten Lab Security After Anthrax, Bird Flu Blunders

Originally published on Fri July 11, 2014 8:21 pm

Particles of H5N1 virus — a particularly dangerous type of bird flu that can infect people — attack lung cells.
Chris Bjornberg Science Source

In the course of trying to understand a laboratory accident involving anthrax, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stumbled upon another major blunder — involving a deadly flu virus.

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4:11pm

Fri July 11, 2014
Business

Declining Domestic Sales Speed Talks For Tobacco Mega-Merger

Originally published on Sun July 13, 2014 1:03 am

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. The U.S. tobacco industry could be in for a shakeup. Reynolds American, the maker of cigarette brands such as Camel and Pall Mall, confirmed today that it's in talks to buy its smaller rival, Lorillard. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, the potential merger comes as the industry feels the pinch of declining sales.

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3:32am

Wed July 9, 2014
Shots - Health News

Like All Animals, We Need Stress. Just Not Too Much

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 12:09 pm

Daniel Horowitz for NPR

Ask somebody about stress, and you're likely to hear an outpouring about all the bad things that cause it — and the bad things that result. But if you ask a biologist, you'll hear that stress can be good.

In fact, it's essential.

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1:52pm

Tue July 8, 2014
Shots - Health News

Smallpox Virus Found In Unsecured NIH Lab

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 12:10 pm

Not something you'd want to find: Smallpox viruses infect a cell.
Science Source

Scientists cleaning out an old laboratory on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., last week came across a startling discovery: vials labeled "variola" — in other words, smallpox.

Under international convention, there are supposed to be only two stashes of this deadly virus: one at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and another at a similar facility in Russia.

The CDC swooped in to collect the vials and carted them off to a secure lab at its Atlanta headquarters.

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5:17pm

Thu June 5, 2014
Shots - Health News

Quick DNA Tests Crack Medical Mysteries Otherwise Missed

Originally published on Sat June 7, 2014 9:07 am

Doctors used a rapid DNA test to identify a Wisconsin teen's unusual infection with Leptospira bacteria (yellow), which are common in the tropics.
CDC/Rob Weyant

Researchers are developing a radical way to diagnose infectious diseases. Instead of guessing what a patient might have, and ordering one test after another, this new technology starts with no assumptions.

The technology starts with a sample of blood or spinal fluid from an infected person and searches through all the DNA in it, looking for sequences that came from a virus, a bacterium, a fungus or even a parasite.

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2:28pm

Thu May 29, 2014
Shots - Health News

Measles Hits Amish Communities, And U.S. Cases Reach 20-Year High

Originally published on Thu May 29, 2014 6:34 pm

Measles was brought to Ohio's Amish communities by people returning from mission trips to the Philippines.
Chuck Crow The Plain Dealer/Landov

Members of Amish communities in Ohio traveled to the Philippines for heartfelt reasons: They were there on service projects to help less fortunate people. Unfortunately, they came home with unwelcome hitchhikers: measles viruses.

Those travelers hadn't been vaccinated against this highly contagious disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. As a result, they have triggered an outbreak of more than 130 cases, primarily among their unvaccinated friends and relatives in Amish communities.

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2:21pm

Thu May 22, 2014
Shots - Health News

Experimental Malaria Vaccine Blocks The Bad Guy's Exit

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 6:46 pm

Red blood cells infected with the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. Plasmodium is the parasite that triggers malaria in people.
Gary D. Gaugler Science Source

For the first time in decades, researchers trying to develop a vaccine for malaria have discovered a new target they can use to attack this deadly and common parasite.

Finding a target for attack is a far cry from having a vaccine. And the history of malaria vaccines is littered with hopeful ideas that didn't pan out. Still, researchers in the field welcome this fresh approach.

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2:18pm

Thu May 15, 2014
Shots - Health News

Medicine Needs More Research On Female Animals, NIH Says

Originally published on Thu May 15, 2014 3:22 pm

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

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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12:44pm

Thu May 8, 2014
Shots - Health News

If Polar Bears Can Eat A Ton Of Fat And Be Healthy, Why Can't We?

Originally published on Thu May 8, 2014 6:20 pm

Lots of swimming in icy seas may have helped bears evolve to eat a high-fat diet yet remain healthy.
Sebastien Bozon AFP/Getty Images

If you were a bear and wanted to make a go of it in the frozen North (think polar bear, of course), what would you need to survive?

White fur would help, to help you sneak up on prey. Also plenty of body fat to stay warm. And you'd need great stamina to swim many miles from one ice floe to the next.

And there's another important trait, researchers reported Thursday: Polar bears have genes that help them live on a diet that's overloaded with fat — without suffering the sorts of human diseases that typically come with a diet of that sort.

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12:03am

Tue May 6, 2014
Shots - Health News

Even Penguins Get The Flu

Originally published on Wed May 7, 2014 4:35 pm

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

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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4:41pm

Fri April 25, 2014
Shots - Health News

Family Tree Of Pertussis Traced, Could Lead To Better Vaccine

Originally published on Mon April 28, 2014 7:51 am

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

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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2:14pm

Thu April 17, 2014
Shots - Health News

First Embryonic Stem Cells Cloned From A Man's Skin

Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 12:20 pm

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

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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4:00pm

Fri April 11, 2014
Shots - Health News

Ebola Drug Could Be Ready For Human Testing Next Year

Originally published on Fri April 11, 2014 8:13 pm

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

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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3:44am

Tue April 8, 2014
Shots - Health News

How Mouse Studies Lead Medical Research Down Dead Ends

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 8:59 am

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

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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1:22pm

Sun April 6, 2014
Shots - Health News

Simple Blood Test To Spot Early Lung Cancer Getting Closer

Originally published on Mon April 7, 2014 1:32 pm

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

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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4:31pm

Thu March 27, 2014
Shots - Health News

Custom Chromo: First Yeast Chromosome Built From Scratch

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 7:03 pm

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

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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12:01pm

Wed March 26, 2014
Shots - Health News

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

Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 8:24 pm

iStockphoto

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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4:47pm

Thu March 20, 2014
Shots - Health News

Never Mind Eyesight, Your Nose Knows Much More

Originally published on Mon March 24, 2014 8:14 am

Your schnoz deserves more respect.
epSos .de/Flickr

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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4:23pm

Thu March 13, 2014
Shots - Health News

Google's Flu Tracker Suffers From Sniffles

Originally published on Fri March 14, 2014 11:27 am

Adam Cole NPR

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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4:18pm

Thu February 20, 2014
Science

Scientists Fear Ecological Disaster In Nicaragua's Planned Canal

Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 8:02 pm

A channel big enough to handle global shipping would require deep dredging throughout Lake Nicaragua, the largest source of fresh water in Central America.
Esteban Felix AP

Scientists are raising the alarm about the possible environmental consequences of a huge shipping canal that could cut across Nicaragua, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The government of this Central American nation has signed a deal with a Chinese company that is planning to build a maritime shortcut that would compete with the Panama Canal. Construction could begin next year — yet there's no official route for the canal and no assessment of its potential impacts on the environment.

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3:03am

Thu February 13, 2014
Science

Ancient DNA Ties Native Americans From Two Continents To Clovis

Originally published on Thu February 13, 2014 8:01 pm

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

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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3:56pm

Wed January 29, 2014
Shots - Health News

Neanderthal Genes Live On In Our Hair And Skin

Originally published on Thu January 30, 2014 11:11 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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3:44am

Wed January 22, 2014
Science

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

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 9:23 am

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

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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3:27am

Thu January 16, 2014
Science

An Old Tree Doesn't Get Taller, But Bulks Up Like A Bodybuilder

Originally published on Fri January 17, 2014 9:12 am

The world's biggest trees, such as this large Scots pine in Spain's Sierra de Baza range, are also the world's fastest-growing trees, according to an analysis of 403 tree species spanning six continents.
Asier Herrero Nature

Like other animals and many living things, we humans grow when we're young and then stop growing once we mature. But trees, it turns out, are an exception to this general rule. In fact, scientists have discovered that trees grow faster the older they get.

Once trees reach a certain height, they do stop getting taller. So many foresters figured that tree growth — and girth — also slowed with age.

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11:51am

Wed January 8, 2014
The Salt

Whales, Dolphins Are Collateral Damage In Our Taste For Seafood

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 10:29 pm

A sperm whale entangled in a drift net. A report says commercial fisheries around the world kill or injure 650,000 mammals a year.
Alberto Romero Marine Photobank

Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals are injured or killed every year by fishermen around the world. And because most seafood in the U.S. is imported, that means our fish isn't as dolphin-friendly as you might expect.

Under pressure from conservation groups, federal regulators are preparing to tighten import standards to better protect marine mammals.

There was a time, more than 40 years ago, when U.S. fishermen killed millions of dolphins while fishing for tuna. After a public backlash, fishermen figured out how to minimize that so-called bycatch.

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4:27pm

Mon January 6, 2014
Environment

Arctic Methane Bubbles Not As Foreboding As Once Feared

European scientists were alarmed in 2008 when they discovered streams of methane bubbles erupting from the seafloor in Norway's high Arctic. This gas, which contributes to global warming, was apparently coming from methane ice on the seafloor. A follow-up study finds that methane bubble plumes at this location have probably been forming for a few thousand years, so they are not the result of human-induced climate change. But continued warming of ocean water can trigger more methane releases in the Arctic, with potentially serious consequences to the climate.

4:18pm

Thu January 2, 2014
Energy

Move Over Electric Car, Auto Companies To Make Hydrogen Vehicles

Originally published on Fri January 3, 2014 10:56 am

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai recently announced that they're planning to build hydrogen-powered cars in the next few years. These cars could rival all electric and plug-ins as cleaner alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. NPR's Richard Harris took a drive in a hydrogen car to learn about the advantages and drawbacks of the technology.

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6:01pm

Thu December 26, 2013
Science

West Coast's Early Warning System For Quakes Still Spotty

Originally published on Thu December 26, 2013 8:09 pm

Workers in Oakland, Calif., check the damage to Interstate 880 on Oct. 19, 1989; this portion of the freeway had collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake two days earlier.
Paul Sakuma AP

Earthquake scientists on the West Coast would like to build a system that would give people a bit of warning before they get jolted with strong shaking from a distant quake.

Seismic waves take time to travel from the epicenter, which means such a warning system could issue alerts ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes. A prototype has been developed for the region, seismologists say, but the complete network still lacks funding, and has big gaps outside cities.

Meanwhile, Japan already has something like that up and running.

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3:24am

Mon December 23, 2013
Energy

Could Big Batteries Be Big Business In California?

Originally published on Mon December 23, 2013 11:12 am

Strong gusts in Palm Springs, Calif., generate plenty of energy, thanks to turbine farms. But being able to store all of that energy is just as important.
Kevork Djansezian Getty Images

The California Public Utilities Commission has called on utilities and private companies to install about $5 billion worth of batteries and other forms of energy storage to help the state power grid cope with the erratic power supplied by wind and solar energy.

The need to store energy has become urgent because the state is planning to get a third of its electricity from renewable sources by the end of the decade. And the shift in strategy could open up some big opportunities for small startups, including one called Stem.

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3:04am

Tue December 17, 2013
Energy

Environmentalists Split Over Need For Nuclear Power

Originally published on Wed December 18, 2013 12:30 am

Southern California's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, shown here in April 2012, was closed after small radiation leaks.
Lenny Ignelzi AP

California is regarded as the leading state when it comes to addressing climate change. But in 2012, according to analysts at Rhodium Group, California's carbon emissions actually increased more than 10 percent, bucking the national trend of decreases. That's in large part because California shut down one of its few remaining nuclear power plants.

That rise in carbon emissions underscores the huge impact nuclear power can have in efforts to combat climate change.

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