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.

Researchers say they have taken a step toward developing a blood test that would detect eight common cancers, possibly even before symptoms appear.

As they report Thursday in the journal Science, they're hoping their idea would eventually lead to a $500 test that can screen for cancer and identify people with the disease when it's in its earliest stages and more treatable.

But they have a long way to go.

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People diagnosed with cancer understandably reach for the very best that medical science has to offer. That motivation is increasingly driving people to ask to have the DNA of their tumors sequenced. And while that's useful for some malignancies, the hype of precision medicine for cancer is getting far ahead of the facts.

It's easy to understand why that's the case. When you hear stories about the use of DNA sequencing to create individualized cancer treatment, chances are they are uplifting stories. Like that of Ben Stern.

Could babies be at higher risk of developing Type 1 diabetes from drinking formula made from cow's milk? That idea has been circulating for some time but the evidence has been scant and contradictory. A study published Tuesday makes it seem less likely.

There are two types of diabetes, and both are on the rise. It's clear that a major driving force behind the increase of Type 2 diabetes, which mainly affects adults, is the eating habits that are also driving the rise of obesity.

Federal taxpayers are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a quest for blood samples, medical information and fitness readouts from a million Americans. It's called the All of Us precision medicine initiative, and it's the biggest push ever mounted to create a huge public pool of data that scientists — and anybody else who is interested — can mine for clues about health and disease.

Proponents say this big data approach to medicine will be revolutionary. Critics aren't so sure.

You might not suspect that the success of the emerging field of precision medicine depends heavily on the couriers who push carts down hospital halls.

But samples taken during surgery may end up in poor shape by the time they get to the pathology lab — and that has serious implications for patients as well as for scientists who want to use that material to develop personalized tests and treatments that are safer and more effective.

The Mayo Clinic is building its future around high-tech approaches to research known as "precision medicine." This involves gathering huge amounts of information from genetic tests, medical records and other data sources to ferret out unexpected ideas to advance health. But one longtime scientist at the Mayo Clinic isn't playing along.

Scientists say they have created a partly man-made bacterium that can produce proteins not found in nature. This new life form, the latest development in a field called "synthetic biology," could eventually be used to produce novel drugs.

When was the last time you were asked to sit without saying a word for five minutes before your blood pressure was measured? If your answer was "I never remember doing that," you're in good company.

Yet that is one of the many rules that medical professionals are supposed to follow when measuring your blood pressure.

A child who was on the verge of death from a rare inherited disease has been treated with genetically engineered skin cells that replaced most of the skin on his body.

The treatment represents a notable success for the field of gene therapy, which has suffered many setbacks. And it's potentially good news for children suffering from a painful and often deadly skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa.

Cancer drugs cost far less to develop than industry-backed research asserts, an analysis published Monday asserts. Research and development costs are a major reason that drug companies justify high prices, so this dispute has a direct bearing on the cost of medical care.

American doctors have been noticing an increase in osteoarthritis of the knee. They have suspected two driving forces: more old people and more people who are overweight.

A study published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that's far from the whole story. Even correcting for body mass index and age, osteoarthritis of the knee is twice as common now as it was before the 1950s.

It's always appealing to think that there could be an easy technical fix for a complicated and serious problem.

For example, wouldn't it be great to have a vaccine to prevent addiction?

"One of the things they're actually working on is a vaccine for addiction, which is an incredibly exciting prospect," said Dr. Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services.

Science relies on the careful collection and analysis of facts. Science also benefits from human judgment, but that intuition isn't necessarily reliable. A study finds that scientists did a poor job forecasting whether a successful experiment would work on a second try.

That matters, because scientists can waste a lot of time if they read the results from another lab and eagerly chase after bum leads.

Zika is a scary virus because of the terrible birth defects it can cause. Now scientists have a clearer sense of the size of that risk.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 2,549 pregnant women with the Zika virus in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories between Jan. 1, 2016 and April 25, 2017. The CDC found that 122 of these women — about 5 percent — gave birth to babies with birth defects such as small heads (known as microcephaly).

Doctors can save thousands of lives a year if they act promptly to identify sepsis, an often lethal reaction to infection. Sometimes called blood poisoning, sepsis is the leading cause of death in hospitals.

A 4-year-old regulation in New York state compels doctors and hospitals to follow a certain protocol, involving a big dose of antibiotics and intravenous fluids. It's far from perfect — about a quarter of patients still die from sepsis. But early intervention is helping.

Smell, the thinking goes, is not our strongest sense. Our lowly noses are eclipsed by our ability to see the world around us, hear the sound of music and feel the touch of a caress. Even animals, we're taught, have a far more acute sense of smell than we do.

But one scientist argues the idea of an inferior sense of smell stems from a 19th-century myth.

If you hear rock star Rod Stewart's husky voice in a radio spot imploring you to get your thyroid checked for cancer, don't be seduced.

An industry-backed foundation has been putting out that message, with Stewart as a celebrity spokesman, but it's not based on sound science. No major medical organization recommends mass screening for thyroid cancer.

A funding crunch for scientific research is creating incentives for scientists to cut corners and even occasionally to cheat.

This is one of the findings in a new report about scientific integrity from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Sometimes scientists adopt sloppy practices that can lead to false conclusions. This can hamper progress in science. And taxpayer dollars are on the line.

It's been 25 years since the National Academy of Sciences set its standards for appropriate scientific conduct, and the world of science has changed dramatically in that time. So now the academies of science, engineering and medicine have updated their standards.

The report published Tuesday, "Fostering Integrity in Research," shines a spotlight on how the research enterprise as a whole creates incentives that can be detrimental to good research.

Most potential new drugs fail when they're tested in people. These failures are not only a major disappointment, they sharply drive up the cost of developing new drugs.

A major reason for these failures is that most new drugs are first tested out in mice, rats or other animals. Often those animal studies show great promise.

But mice aren't simply furry little people, so these studies often lead science astray. Some scientists are now rethinking animal studies to make them more effective for human health.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is being sued by a man who claims Murray "raped and molested him" three decades ago, when the man was 15 years old.

The mayor held a brief news conference Friday to deny the allegations.

The astronomer Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Last week, a physician made the extraordinary claim that he had an effective treatment for sepsis, sometimes known as blood poisoning.

Sepsis is a bodywide inflammation, usually triggered by infection, and the leading cause of death in hospitals, taking 300,000 lives a year. So, even a 15 percent improvement in survival would save 40,000 lives — the number of Americans who die on the highway each year, or from breast cancer.

Cancer can be caused by tobacco smoke or by an inherited trait, but new research finds that most of the mutations that lead to cancer crop up naturally.

The authors of the study published Thursday poked a hornet's nest by suggesting that many cancers are unavoidable.

It's hard not to get excited about news of a potentially effective treatment for sepsis, a condition that leads to multiple organ failure and kills more people in the hospital than any other disease.

But there have been so many false promises about this condition over the years, it's also wise to treat announcements — like one published online by the journal, Chest — with caution.

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