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
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 Wed September 17, 2014 10:53 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 Wed September 17, 2014 12:08 pm

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 16, 2014 3:23 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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Shots - Health News
1:28 pm
Thu May 29, 2014

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

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

Originally published on Thu May 29, 2014 5:34 pm

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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Shots - Health News
1:10 pm
Thu May 22, 2014

Experimental Malaria Vaccine Blocks The Bad Guy's Exit

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

Originally published on Thu May 22, 2014 5:46 pm

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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Shots - Health News
1:11 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
3:55 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
11:01 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
4:10 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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