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.


Shots - Health News
3:38 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 8:21 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
4:52 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 9:09 am

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

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Shots - Health News
4:58 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 3:29 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 β€” 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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Goats and Soda
5:24 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 9:50 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
6:38 pm
Fri July 11, 2014

Feds Tighten Lab Security After Anthrax, Bird Flu Blunders

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

Originally published on Fri July 11, 2014 8:21 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 β€” involving a deadly flu virus.

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Shots - Health News
5:17 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 9:07 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
4:14 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 7:03 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
4:36 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 8:14 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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5:23 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 9:23 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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4:48 am
Thu January 16, 2014

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

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

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

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 β€” and girth β€” also slowed with age.

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4:27 pm
Mon January 6, 2014

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.

5:01 pm
Tue December 3, 2013

Ready β€” Or Not. Abrupt Climate Changes Worry Scientists Most

Puddled meltwater very likely primed this ancient edge of the Antarctic's Larsen Ice Shelf to rapidly disintegrate over just several weeks. This view of the splintered mix of frozen bergs is from a Feb. 21, 2002, satellite image.
Landsat 7 Science Team/NASA/GSFC

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 8:09 pm

An expert panel at the National Academy of Sciences is calling for an early warning system to alert us to abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change.

The committee says science can anticipate some major changes to the Earth that could affect everything from agriculture to sea level. But we aren't doing enough to look for those changes and anticipate their impacts.

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7:38 pm
Mon December 2, 2013

Slashing Fossil Fuel Consumption Comes With A Price

Wind turbines twirl above farmland on the outskirts of Madison, Wis. Not all locals are pleased.
Scott Olson Getty Images

Originally published on Tue December 3, 2013 8:56 am

Governments around the world have agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That would require an 80 percent reduction in energy sources like coal, oil and natural gas, which emit carbon dioxide into the air.

Nations are far from that ambitious path. There are big political and economic challenges. But technologists do see a way β€” at least for the United States β€” to achieve that goal.

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5:37 am
Sat November 30, 2013

Tech Leaders, Economists Split Over Clean Energy's Prospects

Andres Quiroz, an installer for Stellar Solar, carries a solar panel during installation at a home in Encinitas, Calif.
Sam Hodgson Bloomberg via Getty Images

Originally published on Sat November 30, 2013 1:17 pm

There is a broad scientific consensus that to keep global warming in check, we need to phase out 80 percent of all oil, coal and natural gas by midcentury. President Obama has set a nonbinding target to do precisely that.

There are technologists who say this national goal is well within reach, but there are also economists who are quite pessimistic about those prospects. And you can find this range of opinion on the University of California, Berkeley campus.

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4:45 am
Thu November 28, 2013

By Accident, Scientists Discover Lakes Beneath Greenland

Originally published on Thu November 28, 2013 5:34 am



Flying to or from Europe, many a transatlantic traveler has gazed down at the brilliant white surface of Greenland and maybe wondered what is beneath those massive sheets of ice. Well, scientists have discovered jagged mountains, ravines that rival the Grand Canyon.

And now NPR's Richard Harris reports that for the first time they've come across some lakes under the ice as well.

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4:52 pm
Wed November 20, 2013

At Climate Meeting, Tensions Rise Between Rich And Poor Nations

Originally published on Wed November 20, 2013 6:57 pm



NPR's Richard Harris has covered the U.N. climate talks since the first treaty was negotiated in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He's monitoring these new talks, and he joins us now to talk about this long-running argument over climate-related funding for the developing world. Richard, thanks for being here.


BLOCK: And we just heard Mr. Khan mention this goal of $100 billion in aid per year, starting in 2020. He thinks that's realistic. What does it look like from where you sit?

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5:21 pm
Mon November 11, 2013

Why Typhoon Haiyan Caused So Much Damage

This map from the NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory shows the amount of heat energy available to Typhoon Haiyan between Oct. 28 and Nov. 3. Darker purple indicates more available energy. Typhoons gain their strength by drawing heat out of the ocean. The path of the storm is marked with the black line in the center of the image.
NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory

Originally published on Mon November 11, 2013 7:13 pm

The deadly typhoon that swept through the Philippines was one of the strongest ever recorded. But storms nearly this powerful are actually common in the eastern Pacific. Typhoon Haiyan's devastation can be chalked up to a series of bad coincidences.

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6:32 pm
Wed October 23, 2013

Delegates To Debate Watered-Down Plan For Antarctic Marine Preserve

A lone emperor penguin makes his rounds, at the edge of an iceberg drift in the Antarctic's Ross Sea in 2006.
John Weller AP

Originally published on Wed October 23, 2013 7:57 pm

Less than 1 percent of the world's oceans are set aside as protected areas, but diplomats meeting now in Australia could substantially increase that figure.

Delegates from 24 nations and the European Union have convened to consider proposals to create vast new marine protected areas around Antarctica.

This same group met over the summer and didn't reach consensus, so it's now considering a scaled-back proposal.

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NPR Story
5:17 pm
Tue September 24, 2013

Quake In Central Pakistan Makes New Island

Originally published on Tue September 24, 2013 5:52 pm

A large earthquake shook a remote part of central Pakistan Tuesday, and so far local authorities have only reported a few dozen fatalities so far. But according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey, the death toll could be far higher. The quake also gave rise to a mysterious island off the coast of Pakistan. The island was likely created by frozen methane that was shaken loose by the shaking. It pushed its way to the surface and created a muddy piece of land that will soon be washed away.

4:01 am
Tue September 24, 2013

How Many Scientists Does It Take To Write A Climate Report?

An iceberg floats through the water in Ilulissat, Greenland, in July. Researchers are studying how climate change and melting glaciers will affect the rest of the world.
Joe Raedle Getty Images

Originally published on Tue September 24, 2013 10:53 am

Scientists and government representatives are meeting in Stockholm this week to produce the latest high-level review of climate change. It's thousands of pages of material, and if it's done right, it should harbor very few surprises.

That's because it's supposed to compile what scientists know β€” and what they don't β€” about climate change. And that's left some scientists to wonder whether these intensive reviews are still the best way to go.

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5:55 pm
Mon September 16, 2013

Natural Gas May Be Easier On Climate Than Coal, Despite Methane Leaks

A rig drills a hydraulic fracturing well for natural gas outside Rifle, Colo., in March.
Brennan Linsley AP

Originally published on Mon September 16, 2013 7:11 pm

From the standpoint of global warming, burning natural gas can be better than burning coal, a study published this week suggests.

This is a contentious issue among people who are opposed to the natural gas drilling practice known as fracking. That technique involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into wells to release far more gas than conventional drilling can. Opponents of fracking have been concerned not only about local environmental issues, but also about the potential for methane leaks to make global warming worse.

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5:44 pm
Thu September 12, 2013

See Ya, Voyager: Probe Has Finally Entered Interstellar Space

This artist's illustration shows the Voyager 1 space probe. The spacecraft was launched on Sept. 5, 1977, and as of August 2012, it is outside the bubble of hot gas, known as the "heliopause," that radiates from the sun.

Originally published on Thu September 12, 2013 9:34 pm

NASA's two Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, have made history in a dramatic fashion by exploring the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Now one of the vehicles, Voyager I, has made another pioneering leap. It is the first spacecraft to leave the vast bubble of hot gas that surrounds our solar system.

At long last, Voyager 1 is now in interstellar space.

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3:03 am
Tue September 3, 2013

Pollution, Not Rising Temperatures, May Have Melted Alpine Glaciers

The Alps' largest glacier, Aletsch Glacier, extends more than 14 miles and covers more than 46 square miles.

Originally published on Tue September 3, 2013 11:28 am

Glaciers in the Alps of Europe pose a scientific mystery. They started melting rapidly back in the 1860s. In a span of about 50 years, some of the biggest glaciers had retreated more than half a mile.

But nobody could explain the glacier's rapid decline. Now, a new study from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory uncovers a possible clue to why the glaciers melted before temperatures started rising: Soot from the Industrial Revolution could have heated up the ice.

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3:35 am
Thu August 29, 2013

A Cooler Pacific May Be Behind Recent Pause In Global Warming

Originally published on Thu August 29, 2013 11:47 am

A study in the journal Nature could help explain why the Earth's average temperature hasn't increased during the past 15 years β€” despite a long-term trend of global warming.

The Earth's average temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But the temperature rise has not been moving in lock step with the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide β€” mainly from burning fossil fuels β€” traps heat in the air.

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5:49 pm
Fri August 23, 2013

The 'Consensus' View: Kevin Trenberth's Take On Climate Change

Originally published on Fri August 23, 2013 9:12 pm

Next month, a scientific committee sponsored by the United Nations will put out its latest assessment of climate change. The report is expected to underscore yet again that climate change is a serious problem and human beings are largely responsible.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents a consensus view of hundreds of scientists from around the world. The effort shared the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

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2:57 am
Tue August 20, 2013

How Extreme Australian Rains Made Global Sea Levels Drop

Heavy rains in Australia in 2010 and 2011 flooded farmland and homes, like these in the Queensland state town of St. George, seen here on Feb. 7. 2011.
Sally Nicol Rigney AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Tue August 20, 2013 9:19 am

Global sea level has been rising as a result of global warming, but in 2010 and 2011, sea level actually fell by about a quarter of an inch.

Scientists now say they know why: It has to do with extreme weather in Australia.

The sea level drop coincided with some of the worst flooding in that continent's history. Dozens of people died and torrents washed away houses and cars, forcing thousands from their homes.

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Research News
3:15 am
Tue July 30, 2013

For Some Mammals It's One Love, But Reasons Still Unclear

Golden lion tamarins are one species that are largely monogamous.
Felipe Dana AP

Originally published on Tue July 30, 2013 11:11 am

Fewer than 10 percent of all mammal species are monogamous. In fact, biologists have long disagreed over why monogamy exists at all. That's the subject of two studies published this week β€” and they come to different conclusions.

Animals that leave the most offspring win the race to spread their genes and to perpetuate their lineage. So for most mammals, males have a simple strategy: Mate with as many females as possible.

"Monogamy is a problem," says Dieter Lukas, a biologist at Cambridge University. "Why should a male keep to one female?"

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5:29 pm
Wed July 24, 2013

What's Swimming In The River? Just Look For DNA

Biologists normally look for the hellbender slamander, which is known by the nickname "snot otter," under rocks in streams. But now there's a gentler way: They can take water samples and look for traces of the animals' DNA.
Robert J. Erwin Science Source

Originally published on Wed July 24, 2013 7:34 pm

If you want to protect rare species, first you have to find them. In the past few years, biologists have developed a powerful new tool to do that. They've discovered that they can often find traces of animal DNA in streams, ponds β€” even oceans.

The idea took root just five years ago, when biologists in France found they could detect invasive American bullfrogs simply by sampling pond water and looking for an exact genetic match to the frogs' DNA.

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7:06 pm
Tue June 25, 2013

Obama's Climate Strategy Doesn't Require Congressional Approval

President Obama unveils his plan on climate change Tuesday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The president laid out his plan to reduce carbon pollution and to prepare the country for the impacts of climate change.
Alex Wong Getty Images

President Obama unveiled a sweeping plan Tuesday designed to deal with climate change. For the first time, carbon emissions from power plants would be regulated. The policy, which can be implemented by the administration without congressional approval, calls for a broad range of actions, including steps to deal with extreme weather events that are already occurring.

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The Salt
3:11 pm
Thu June 6, 2013

How To Clean Up Fish Farms And Raise More Seafood At The Same Time

Thierry Chopin from the University of New Brunswick examines a raft that holds strings of seaweed. The seaweed grows around pens of farmed salmon and soaks up some of the nutrients that would otherwise pollute the Bay of Fundy.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Mon June 10, 2013 5:38 pm

Last month, we told you about companies that are growing salmon on dry land. That's an effective β€” but expensive β€” way to reduce water pollution caused by fish farms. After all, marine aquaculture provides about half of the seafood we eat.

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