Ongoing Coverage:

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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Research News
4:31 am
Fri December 26, 2014

Solving The Mystery Of Why Rock Ants Avoid Right Turns

Originally published on Fri December 26, 2014 6:52 am

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Shots - Health News
3:00 pm
Thu December 11, 2014

Unexpected Joint Pain Seen In Test Of Experimental Ebola Vaccine

A shipment of experimental Ebola vaccine is opened at a hospital in Geneva.
Mathilde Missioneiro AP

Two potential Ebola vaccines are currently being tested in people, to see if they're safe and to figure out the best dose.

Both trials have encountered some of the typical travails of vaccine research.

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Shots - Health News
3:54 am
Wed December 10, 2014

Scientists Often Skip A Simple Test That Could Verify Their Work

When the wrong cells take over, scientists' experiments can be derailed.
Chris Nickels for NPR

Originally published on Wed December 10, 2014 4:34 pm

There's a simple test that scientists could use to make sure the cells they're studying in the lab are what they think they are. But most of the time, academic scientists don't bother.

That omission is a problem. One study found that between 18 percent and 36 percent of all cell lines have been misidentified. And this kind of mistaken identity is one reason that many results from experiments run in scientific labs can't be reproduced elsewhere.

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Shots - Health News
4:11 am
Tue December 9, 2014

Mistaken Identities Plague Lab Work With Human Cells

Georgetown's Robert Clark says it's very difficult to say precisely how many experiments have been spoiled by contaminated cell lines.
Phil Humnicky Courtesy of Georgetown University

Originally published on Wed December 17, 2014 6:55 pm

There's a major flaw in many medical research studies that seems so basic that you'd think scientists would be smart enough to avoid it.

It turns out that cells studied in the laboratory often get mixed up. A researcher who thinks she is studying breast cancer cells might in fact be using melanoma cells.

It's a surprisingly common problem — even in some of the top scientific labs.

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Shots - Health News
10:26 am
Tue November 25, 2014

How Can Vultures Eat Rotten Roadkill And Survive?

Originally published on Wed November 26, 2014 2:31 pm

You might wonder why 48 million Americans get food poisoning every year, yet there are some animals that seem to be immune from even the nastiest germs.

We're talking here about vultures, which feast on rotting flesh that is chockablock with bacteria that would be deadly to human beings. In fact, vultures have a strong preference for that kind of food.

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Shots - Health News
11:01 am
Mon November 24, 2014

Merck Partners With NewLink To Speed Up Work On Ebola Vaccine

A 26-year-old man receives an injection in September of an experimental Ebola vaccine being tested by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and GlaxoSmithKline.
NIAID

It's now Goliath versus Goliath in the quest for an Ebola vaccine.

Until now, the two leading candidates for a vaccine to protect against the Ebola virus were being led by global pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline on the one hand, and a tiny company in Ames, Iowa, that was virtually unknown, on the other.

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Global Health
4:13 am
Thu November 13, 2014

Swiss Health Officials Try New Ways To Combat Ebola

Originally published on Thu November 13, 2014 6:54 am

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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Goats and Soda
2:35 am
Tue November 11, 2014

Medical Experts Look For New Ways To Test Ebola Drugs

Nurses assist a new patient at an Ebola center in Liberia's Lofa County. As drug trials get underway, patients may receive experimental medicines.
Tommy Trenchard NPR

Originally published on Tue November 11, 2014 7:06 am

Medical experts are meeting today and tomorrow at the World Health Organization in Geneva to figure out how to test potential Ebola drugs in Africa. In addition to determining which experimental drugs should be the highest priority, the experts are sorting through some difficult ethical issues.

In short, they're trying to figure out how to design tests that will provide the fastest and most trustworthy answers — and yet minimize the need for comparison groups who won't be offered the experimental treatments.

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Shots - Health News
3:33 pm
Tue October 28, 2014

Blood Test For Ebola Doesn't Catch Infection Early

Magnified 25,000 times, this digitally colorized scanning electron micrograph shows Ebola virus particles (green) budding from an infected cell (blue).
CDC/NIAD

Originally published on Wed October 29, 2014 7:48 am

In an ideal world, health care workers returning from West Africa would get a quick blood test to prove they aren't carrying the Ebola virus. A test like that would likely put to rest some of the anxiety surrounding these doctors, nurses and scientists.

Unfortunately, even the best blood test in the world can't do that.

The test uses a technology called PCR, for polymerase chain reaction. It can detect extraordinarily small traces of genetic material from the Ebola virus.

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Shots - Health News
5:12 pm
Tue October 21, 2014

Ebola Vaccine Could Start Testing In Africa By January

Patients in a clinic line up to get a smallpox shot on Feb. 24, 1962, in Leopoldville, Congo. Health workers used vaccination campaigns to finally eradicate smallpox by 1980.
AP

Originally published on Wed October 22, 2014 9:22 am

The World Health Organization says that efforts are on track to distribute an experimental Ebola vaccine in West Africa in January.

Two potential vaccines are now being tested for safety in people, and Russia is developing another one. While quantities will be limited, scientists say even a relatively small supply of vaccine can help bring the epidemic under control.

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Shots - Health News
2:09 pm
Wed October 1, 2014

Experimental Drug Jams Ebola Gene To Fight The Virus

A man stands above a new Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia. Health workers in Liberia, the hardest-hit nation, have turned people away from treatment units because of shortages of beds and staff.
Pascal Guyot AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu October 2, 2014 10:46 am

Plans are afoot to test drugs to treat Ebola in West Africa — and those studies could have far-reaching benefits far beyond this rapidly expanding epidemic.

That's because some of the drugs are based on nascent technologies that can be used to treat other infectious diseases — and even inherited ailments, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

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Global Health
5:00 pm
Tue September 30, 2014

CDC Announces First Case Of Ebola Diagnosed In U.S.

Originally published on Tue September 30, 2014 5:46 pm

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Goats and Soda
4:06 am
Tue September 30, 2014

Tests Of New Ebola Drugs Could Take Place As Early As November

Some potential new Ebola drugs will be tested at treatment centers like this one run by Doctors Without Borders near Monrovia.
John Moore Getty Images

Originally published on Tue September 30, 2014 12:46 pm

Health officials are gearing up to test drugs and vaccines against Ebola in West Africa, and they hope to start within two months. That's an ambitious timeline for a process that often takes years. The challenge is to move forward as quickly as possible while minimizing the risks that come with unproven drugs and vaccines.

Right now there are no proven medications. But researchers have been working methodically for years on vaccines that could protect people from the Ebola virus — and drugs that could treat the sick.

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Shots - Health News
10:56 am
Wed September 24, 2014

After The NIH Funding 'Euphoria' Comes The 'Hangover'

Originally published on Fri September 26, 2014 10:02 am

When Richard Larson co-wrote a scientific paper about the perils of up-and-down funding for the National Institutes of Health, he noted that the research cycled between states of "euphoria," and a "hangover" far greater than you'd expect.

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Shots - Health News
3:11 am
Wed September 17, 2014

Top Scientists Suggest A Few Fixes For Medical Funding Crisis

Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Prize winner, cancer biologist and director of the National Cancer Institute.
Manuel Balce Ceneta AP

Originally published on Thu September 18, 2014 7:02 am

Many U.S. scientists had hoped to ride out the steady decline in federal funding for biomedical research, but it's continuing on a downward trend with no end in sight. So leaders of the science establishment are now trying to figure out how to fix this broken system.

It's a familiar problem. Biomedical science has a long history of funding ups and downs, and, in the past, the system has always righted itself with the passage of time and plumper budgets.

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Shots - Health News
3:42 pm
Tue September 16, 2014

Breast Cancer Patients Seek More Control Over Research Agenda

Coalitions of patient advocates now help steer research funding toward particular projects.
Lilli Carré for NPR

Originally published on Tue September 23, 2014 10:23 am

The federal government has poured more than $3 billion into breast cancer research over the past couple of decades, but the results have been disappointing. The disease remains a stubborn killer of women.

So the National Breast Cancer Coalition is trying something bold: The advocacy group has decided that it's not simply going to lobby for more research dollars. Instead, its leaders are sitting down at the table with scientists studying the disease and telling them how they'd like that money to be spent.

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The Salt
10:08 am
Tue September 16, 2014

A Scientist's Journey From Beer To Microbiology To Bourbon-Making

Ian Glomski outside his home in Charlottesville, Va., where hops grow in his garden. He quit an academic career in microbiology to start a liquor distillery.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Tue September 16, 2014 1:18 pm

If you have been following the various posts about beer on The Salt, you may have noticed a pattern: Many of the folks making beer have a scientific background. There's good reason for that. People don't make beer. Yeast does. Well, OK — it's a partnership.

And sometimes, it's a two-way street between the brewery and the lab.

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Shots - Health News
2:38 am
Tue September 16, 2014

Too Few University Jobs For America's Young Scientists

Victoria Ruiz (left), a postdoctoral fellow in immunology, works with Brianna Delgado, a high school student that she mentors, at the Blaser Lab, inside NYU's Langone Medical Center in New York, NY.
Ramsay de Give for NPR

Originally published on Tue September 30, 2014 7:21 pm

Imagine a job where about half of all the work is being done by people who are in training. That's, in fact, what happens in the world of biological and medical research.

In the United States, more than 40,000 temporary employees known as postdoctoral research fellows are doing science at a bargain price. And most postdocs are being trained for jobs that don't actually exist.

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Shots - Health News
3:52 am
Mon September 15, 2014

Patients Vulnerable When Cash-Strapped Scientists Cut Corners

Tom Murphy, 56, in his home in Gainesville, Va., was diagnosed with ALS four years ago. An experimental drug seems to have slowed the progression of his disease, he says, though most ALS patients aren't as lucky.
T.J. Kirkpatrick for NPR

Originally published on Tue September 16, 2014 8:09 am

There's a funding crunch for biomedical research in the United States — and it's not just causing pain for scientists and universities. It's also creating incentives for researchers to cut corners — and that's affecting people who are seriously ill.

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Shots - Health News
3:32 pm
Tue September 9, 2014

When Scientists Give Up

Randen Patterson left a research career in physiology at U.C. Davis when funding got too tight. He now owns a grocery store in Guinda, Calif.
Max Whittaker/Prime for NPR

Originally published on Wed September 10, 2014 2:29 pm

Ian Glomski thought he was going to make a difference in the fight to protect people from deadly anthrax germs. He had done everything right — attended one top university, landed an assistant professorship at another.

But Glomski ran head-on into an unpleasant reality: These days, the scramble for money to conduct research has become stultifying.

So, he's giving up on science.

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Shots - Health News
2:29 am
Tue September 9, 2014

U.S. Science Suffering From Booms And Busts In Funding

Leif Parsons for NPR

Originally published on Tue September 16, 2014 5:43 pm

Ten years ago, Robert Waterland got an associate professorship at Baylor College of Medicine and set off to study one of the nation's most pressing health problems: obesity. In particular, he's been trying to figure out the biology behind why children born to obese women are more likely to develop the condition themselves.

Waterland got sustaining funding from the National Institutes of Health and used it to get the project going.

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Africa
3:10 pm
Thu August 21, 2014

Why Ebola Is Making It Harder To Provide Good Health Care

Protective equipment is in short supply. Here, a Liberian burial team carefully disinfects its gloves before disposing of them.
John Moore Getty Images

Originally published on Thu August 21, 2014 10:28 pm

The Ebola virus has killed more than 1,300 people in West Africa, but the indirect deaths caused by this epidemic are likely to be far worse. Right now, it's the rainy season. And that means it's high season for malaria.

"Probably 85 percent of the fevers right now are malaria," says Laura Miller, health coordinator in Sierra Leone for the International Rescue Committee. "But more of those cases will go untreated than usual."

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Goats and Soda
4:24 pm
Fri August 15, 2014

Even With $100 Million, WHO Says It Will Take Months To Control Ebola

A health worker cleans his hands with chlorinated water before entering an Ebola screening tent at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone. More than 300 Sierra Leoneans have died of the disease.
Michael Duff AP

Originally published on Fri August 15, 2014 8:50 pm

When public health officials warn that it's likely to take many months to bring the Ebola outbreak in West Africa under control, it's not because they're facing a single huge challenge.

"If there was just one solid, large chunk we could slice out, we would," says WHO spokeswoman Nyka Alexander, at the agency's regional coordination center in Conakry, Guinea. "But it's so many little things that add up to the outbreak."

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Shots - Health News
11:50 am
Fri August 8, 2014

Investors Pump Prospects Of Unproven Ebola Treatments

Tobacco plants grown at an Owensboro, Ky., biotechnology firm were used to help produce an experimental serum used to treat two Americans infected with Ebola.
AP

Originally published on Fri August 8, 2014 12:24 pm

Interest in drugs that might be used to treat Ebola virus has hit a fever pitch, but the buzz isn't simply about fear of Ebola, or about saving lives in poor nations of West Africa. It's also about money.

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Shots - Health News
6:03 am
Sat August 2, 2014

Why Treating Ebola With An Experimental Serum Might Help

In 1995, amid an Ebola outbreak, Zairian Red Cross personnel picked up sick people and bodies left on the streets of Kikwit, 250 miles from the capital Kinshasa.
Jean-Marc Bouju AP

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 10:23 am

Last week we learned that two Americans working in Liberia for a medical charity, Samaritan's Purse, were among those who had contracted Ebola. When their symptoms took a turn for the worse, the organization announced that the two were going to get experimental treatments. One was going to get a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old boy who recovered from the disease, the organization said; the other was to get an "experimental serum." What's that?

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Shots - Health News
5:06 pm
Fri July 11, 2014

Feds Tighten Lab Security After Anthrax, Bird Flu Blunders

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

Originally published on Fri July 11, 2014 7:21 pm

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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Business
3:11 pm
Fri July 11, 2014

Declining Domestic Sales Speed Talks For Tobacco Mega-Merger

Originally published on Sun July 13, 2014 12:03 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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Shots - Health News
2:32 am
Wed July 9, 2014

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

Daniel Horowitz for NPR

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 11:09 am

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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Shots - Health News
12:29 pm
Tue July 8, 2014

Smallpox Virus Found In Unsecured NIH Lab

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

Originally published on Thu July 10, 2014 11:10 am

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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Shots - Health News
4:17 pm
Thu June 5, 2014

Quick DNA Tests Crack Medical Mysteries Otherwise Missed

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

Originally published on Sat June 7, 2014 8:07 am

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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