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.

Michael Robertson was on his summer vacation a few years ago and had just proposed to the woman who would become his wife when he decided he needed to see a doctor.

"I'd been having symptoms for a few months but it was during an intense work period, drinking too much coffee, not getting enough sleep, so I kind of chalked it up to that," Robertson says. Unfortunately, the doctor had a more dire diagnosis: stage 4 rectal cancer.

A major medical association today suggested that doctors who treat people with Type 2 diabetes can set less aggressive blood sugar targets. But medical groups that specialize in diabetes sharply disagree.

Half a dozen medical groups have looked carefully at the best treatment guidelines for the 29 million Americans who have Type 2 diabetes and have come up with somewhat differing guidelines.

Flu is still rampant across the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the epidemic has peaked. It eased a bit last week, for the second week in a row.

Influenza is still claiming lives. The CDC reported 17 flu deaths among children last week, bringing the total pediatric deaths to 114. Adult deaths from the flu are not tracked directly.

The technology that drives science forward is forever accelerating, but the same can't be said for science communication. The basic process still holds many vestiges from its early days — that is the 17th century.

Some scientists are pressing to change that critical part of the scientific enterprise.

Here's what they're confronting: When researchers studying the biology of disease make a discovery, it typically takes nine months for them to get their results published in a journal.

A quarter of a million Americans die every year from sepsis, which is the body's reaction to overwhelming infection. This cascade of organ failure can be nipped in the bud if health care workers know it's ramping up, but that's often not easy to do.

This story of a man who nearly died in the hospital actually started in the woods of Washington's Cascade Mountains last summer.

"I was cutting for a logging outfit up on these rock cliffs and I felled a 150-foot fir tree into [some] maple trees," says Kristopher Kelly, a 51-year-old lumberjack. The maples "had a bunch of dead tops — they call 'em widow makers," Kelly says. "You don't want to get under them because they'll make you a widow."

Federal health officials say that, as they anticipated, the flu vaccine isn't very effective this year — but they say it has still prevented thousands of serious illnesses and deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures that, overall, the flu vaccine is 36 percent effective at preventing disease. One bright point for parents of young kids: Children ages 6 months to 8 years responded significantly better to the vaccine than older Americans.

The peak of the flu season could still be several weeks away, federal health officials cautioned Friday.

"We may be on track to break some recent records," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly all states are still reporting widespread flu activity, with less severe reports only coming from Oregon and Hawaii.

"Flu is incredibly difficult to predict and we don't know if we've hit the peak yet," Schuchat said in a call with reporters. "We could still see several more weeks of increased activity."

The current flu season is still getting worse, federal health officials said Friday. And it continues to take a toll on children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an additional 16 flu deaths among children, bringing the nationwide total this season for youngsters to 53.

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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.

The results of an IQ test can depend on the gender of the person who's conducting the test. Likewise, studies of pain medication can be completely thrown off by the gender of the experimenter. This underappreciated problem is one reason that some scientific findings don't stand the test of time.

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.