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
2:21 pm
Wed April 15, 2015

Personalizing Cancer Treatment With Genetic Tests Can Be Tricky

Sequencing the genes of a cancer cell turns up lots of genetic mutations — but some of them are harmless. The goal is to figure out which mutations are the troublemakers.
Kevin Curtis Science Source

Originally published on Wed April 15, 2015 5:52 pm

It's becoming routine for cancer doctors to order a detailed genetic test of a patient's tumor to help guide treatment, but often those results are ambiguous. Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine Wednesday say there's a way to make these expensive tests more useful.

Here's the issue: These genomic tests scan hundreds or even thousands of genes looking for mutations that cause or promote cancer growth. In the process, they uncover many mutations that scientists simply don't know how to interpret — some may be harmless.

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Shots - Health News
4:38 pm
Fri April 10, 2015

Clam Cancer Spreads Along Eastern Seaboard

The blood cancer in soft-shell clams poses no risk to humans, but it does kill the shellfish.
Pat Wellenbach AP

Originally published on Mon April 13, 2015 7:50 am

Not every clam is, as the expression goes, happy as a clam. Even shellfish, it turns out, can get cancer. And it just might be that this cancer is spread from clam to clam by rogue cells bobbing through the ocean, scientists reported Thursday in the journal Cell.

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Shots - Health News
4:44 pm
Wed April 8, 2015

Link Between Heart Disease And Height Hidden In Our Genes

Originally published on Thu April 9, 2015 10:53 am

Shorter people are more likely than taller folks to have clogged heart arteries, and a new study says part of the reason lies in the genes.

Doctors have known since the 1950s about the link between short stature and coronary artery disease, "but the reason behind this really hasn't been completely clear," says Nilesh Samani, a cardiologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K.

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Shots - Health News
2:08 pm
Mon March 30, 2015

Why Are More Baby Boys Born Than Girls?

There's a widely held assumption that a slight imbalance in male births has its start at the very moment of conception. But researchers say factors later in pregnancy are more likely to explain the phenomenon.
CNRI Science Source

Originally published on Thu April 16, 2015 11:58 pm

Scientists have found some unexpected clues that could help explain why 51 percent of the babies born in the United States are male.

It's been a mystery why that ratio isn't 50:50, since that's what basic biology would predict. But scientists have noticed a tilted sex ratio at birth since the 17th century.

The widely held assumption is that this imbalance starts at the very moment of conception — that more males are conceived than females.

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Shots - Health News
3:07 pm
Mon March 23, 2015

Stats Split On Progress Against Cancer

Find other stories in the Living Cancer series at WNYC.org.
WNYC

Originally published on Tue March 24, 2015 7:33 am

When someone asks whether we're winning the war on cancer, the discussion often veers into the world of numbers. And, depending on which numbers you're looking at, the answer can either be yes or no.

Let's start with the no.

The number of cancer deaths in this country is on the rise. It climbed 4 percent between 2000 and 2011, the latest year in official statistics. More than 577,000 people died of cancer in 2011. That's almost a quarter of all deaths. Those aren't just personal tragedies – the figure represents a growing burden on America.

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Shots - Health News
3:02 pm
Mon March 23, 2015

Why The War On Cancer Hasn't Been Won

Vidhya Nagarajan for NPR

Originally published on Tue March 24, 2015 11:26 am

When President Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer in 1971, there were high hopes that scientists were close enough to understanding the underlying causes that many cures were within reach.

We obviously haven't won the war.

In fact, a prominent cancer biologist argues that the conceptual framework for understanding cancer has come full circle over the past 40 years.

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Shots - Health News
4:46 pm
Wed March 11, 2015

Results Of Many Clinical Trials Not Being Reported

Glenn Lightner in 2012 at age 13. His father searched clinicaltrials.gov for years, to no avail, hoping to find a promising experimental cancer treatment that might save his son's life.
Courtesy of Lawrence Lightner

Originally published on Wed April 1, 2015 3:07 pm

Many scientists are failing to live up to a 2007 law that requires them to report the results of their clinical trials to a public website, according to a study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.

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Shots - Health News
3:16 pm
Thu February 19, 2015

A Biological Quest Leads To A New Kind Of Breast Cancer Drug

It's a good start when experimental compounds stop the proliferation of cancer cells in the lab. But, as many researchers have learned the hard way, that's just an early step toward creating a worthwhile treatment.
Science Source

Originally published on Thu February 19, 2015 7:13 pm

Each year, the Food and Drug Administration approves dozens of drugs, but often those medicines don't make a huge difference to people with disease. That's because these "new" drugs are often very much like existing medicines — or are, in fact, existing medicines, approved for a slightly different purpose.

But every now and then the FDA approves a truly new drug. And that's the story of Pfizer's palbociclib, brand name Ibrance, which the agency approved for the treatment of a common form of advanced breast cancer.

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Shots - Health News
2:42 am
Thu February 12, 2015

Smoking's Death Toll May Be Higher Than Anyone Knew

Tobacco smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to die from infection, kidney disease and, maybe, breast cancer.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Thu February 12, 2015 8:09 am

The U.S. surgeon general lists 21 deadly diseases that are caused by smoking. Now, a study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine points to more than a dozen other diseases that apparently add to the tobacco death toll.

To arrive at this conclusion, scientists from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and several universities tracked nearly a million people for a decade and recorded their causes of death.

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Shots - Health News
3:35 pm
Thu February 5, 2015

FDA Commissioner Hamburg Grappled With Global Challenges

Dr. Margaret Hamburg will have served almost six years as FDA commissioner by the time she leaves, far longer than the recent tenure for chiefs of the agency.
J. David Ake AP

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 5:31 pm

Dr. Margaret Hamburg is stepping down from one of the toughest jobs in the federal government: commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

The agency regulates drugs and medical devices and has an important role in food safety. And it's a highly contentious job. No matter what you do, someone's going to complain that you're either too easy on industry or standing in the way of progress.

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