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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The Two-Way
8:58 am
Fri March 22, 2013

Scientists Use Antacid To Help Measure The Rate Of Reef Growth

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science takes a water sample during his experiment out on part of the Great Barrier Reef. The water is slightly pink because his team is using a dye to trace an acid-neutralizing chemical as it flows across the reef.
Richard Harris NPR

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 4: Richard catches up with one of the gurus of climate science out on the reef.

Ken Caldeira loves a challenge, and he has a big one right under his feet. He's standing on an expanse of coral reef out in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. It's being washed with water as the tide streams over the reef, from a lagoon to the open sea.

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The Two-Way
8:35 am
Thu March 21, 2013

It's 'Birds Gone Wild' Out On Australia's Heron Island

On Australia's Heron Island, buff-banded rails like this one have become the avian equivalent of a weed.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Fri March 22, 2013 9:01 am

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 3: Waiting for a boat to the next island, Richard meets some rowdy birds.

Weeds are not a true category of plant. A weed is simply a plant that's growing where a person wishes it weren't.

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The Two-Way
8:49 am
Wed March 20, 2013

On Australia's Great Barrier Reef, There's A Turf Battle Raging

Guillermo Diaz-Pulido from Griffith University in Brisbane grows bits of seaweed attached to pieces of coral in tanks at the research facility on Australia's Heron Island.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Fri March 22, 2013 9:02 am

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 2: The good news is life could get better for seaweed.

Picture a coral reef and the first things likely to come to mind are brilliantly colored fish swimming among stout branches of coral. Let your mind wander a bit more and you might imagine some sea turtles, stingrays and sharks.

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The Two-Way
8:00 am
Tue March 19, 2013

Australia's Heron Island: A Canary In The Coal Mine For Coral Reefs?

Heron Island is located on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, about 25 miles off the northeast coast of Australia.
Ted Mead Getty Images

Originally published on Fri March 22, 2013 9:02 am

NPR Science Correspondent Richard Harris traveled to Australia's Great Barrier Reef to find out how the coral reefs are coping with increased water temperature and increasing ocean acidity, brought about by our burning of fossil fuels. Day 1: Richard gets a hefty dose of bad news.

I've seen the future, and it isn't pretty.

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Shots - Health News
1:34 pm
Thu February 14, 2013

Traces Of Anxiety Drugs May Make Fish Act Funny

Perch exposed to the anxiety drug oxazepam were more daring and ate more quickly than fish that lived in drug-free water.
Courtesy of Bent Christensen

Originally published on Thu February 14, 2013 3:40 pm

Many of the drugs we take aren't actually digested — they pass through our bodies, and down through the sewer pipes. Traces of those drugs end up in the bodies of fish and other wildlife. Nobody's sure what effect they have.

Now, a paper being published in Science magazine finds that drugs for anxiety drugs — even at these very low levels — can affect the behavior of fish.

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Asia
2:09 pm
Tue February 12, 2013

Did North Korea Test A 'Miniature' Nuclear Bomb?

An official with the Korea Meteorological Administration shows a seismic image of a tremor caused by North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul on Tuesday.
Kim Jae-Hwan AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Mon February 25, 2013 11:19 am

North Korea's latest nuclear weapons test is much more powerful than the previous two, according to estimates made by instruments that measure seismic waves from the blast. It's about the size of the bomb that devastated Hiroshima in World War II.

But it's not so easy to verify the claim that the nuclear explosive has also been miniaturized. That's a critical claim because a small warhead would be essential if the rogue regime chose to threaten the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Big bombs are easier to make, but they aren't all that useful as a threat.

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Environment
3:11 pm
Wed January 16, 2013

Could Some Midwest Land Support New Biofuel Refineries?

Vegetation like the kind growing here at Michigan State University's Kellogg Biological Station could one day be used to feed small biofuel refineries spread throughout the Midwest.
J.E.Doll Michigan State University

Originally published on Fri January 18, 2013 5:16 am

Millions of acres of marginal farmland in the Midwest — land that isn't in good enough condition to grow crops — could be used to produce liquid fuels made from plant material, according to a study in Nature. And those biofuels could, in theory, provide about 25 percent of the advanced biofuels required by a 2007 federal law.

But there are many ifs and buts about this study — and, in fact, about the future of advanced biofuels.

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Energy
12:38 am
Tue January 8, 2013

Drilling Rig's Thick Hull Helps Prevent Oil Spill

Originally published on Tue January 8, 2013 4:06 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Shell oil drilling rig that ran aground off Alaska last week is now anchored in a quiet harbor so divers can assess the damage. Wildlife officials say they have seen no evidence of a spill from the vessel, which was carrying tanks of diesel fuel. But the accident does raise questions about Shell's plans to drill for oil in the remote and fragile ecosystem of the Arctic.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

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Science
1:00 am
Tue January 1, 2013

The Year Of The Higgs, And Other Tiny Advances In Science

Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of the Higgs boson on July 4, the long-sought building block of the universe. This image shows a computer-simulation of data from the collider.
Barcroft Media/Landov

Originally published on Tue January 1, 2013 7:44 am

It's a year-end tradition to cobble together a list of the most important advances in science. But, truth be told, many ideas that change the world don't tend to spring from these flashy moments of discovery. Our view of nature — and our technology — often evolve from a sequence of more subtle advances.

Even so, chances are good that this year's list-makers will choose the discovery of the Higgs boson as the most important discovery of 2012.

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Space
2:34 pm
Thu December 20, 2012

In Calif. Gold Country, A Rush That's Out Of This World

A section of the Sutter's Mill meteorite, dubbed "Darth Vader," is studied at a lab at the University of California, Davis. The meteorite is made of carbonaceous chondrite, which contains materials that formed the planets of the solar system.
UC Davis

Originally published on Thu December 20, 2012 8:18 pm

On the crisp, clear morning of April 22, a 50-ton asteroid slammed into the Earth's atmosphere and shattered into countless pieces. Remarkably, they rained down onto Sutter's Mill, Calif., the exact spot where gold was discovered back in 1848, triggering the gold rush. And so follows a story of serendipity and scientific discovery.

"I was out on my hillside burning some branches and so forth, and I heard this sonic boom," says Gold Country resident Ed Allen. "It wasn't just one boom. It was a series of booms, literally right over my head."

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Research News
2:57 pm
Wed December 12, 2012

Land Creatures Might Not Have Come From The Sea

The fossil remains of Dickinsonia, an Ediacaran organism that's long been extinct. Scientists have long assumed these early life forms lived in the sea, but a new study argues they emerged on land.
G. Retallack Nature

Originally published on Wed December 12, 2012 4:29 pm

Cartoonists have found many clever ways to depict the conventional wisdom that complex life evolved in the sea and then crawled up onto land. But a provocative new study suggests that the procession might be drawn in the wrong direction. The earliest large life forms may have appeared on land long before the oceans filled with creatures that swam and crawled and burrowed in the mud.

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Environment
3:17 pm
Fri December 7, 2012

At Doha Climate Talks, Modest Results At Best

Delegates attend the last day of the U.N. climate talks in Doha, Qatar, on Friday. U.N. climate negotiators locked horns on the final day of talks in Doha to halt the march of global warming, deeply divided on extending the greenhouse gas-curbing Kyoto Protocol and funding for poor countries.
Karim Jaafar AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Fri December 7, 2012 9:50 pm

United Nations climate talks ran into overtime on Friday night, as diplomats pressed for whatever small advantage they could achieve.

As usual, the talks, which are being held in Doha, Qatar, involve closely interwoven issues. They include the usual wrangling over money, as well as early efforts in a multiyear process that is supposed to result in a new climate treaty.

Part of that involves finding a graceful way to phase out the Kyoto treaty, which has not proved to be a successful strategy for dealing with a warming planet.

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Science
3:33 pm
Thu November 29, 2012

Greenland, Antarctic Ice Is Melting Faster

An iceberg that likely calved from Jakobshavn Isbrae, the fastest glacier in western Greenland.
Ian Joughin Science/AAAS

Originally published on Thu November 29, 2012 3:44 pm

Superstorm Sandy sparked a lot of interest in rising sea levels when it swept across the Northeast last month and flooded parts of the coast. Over the next century, more water — and higher sea levels — could come from melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica. How much has been unclear.

But now scientists have developed a much clearer view of how quickly that ice has been melting over the past two decades. And that will help researchers forecast the rate of sea-level rise in the years to come.

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Solve This
12:00 pm
Wed October 17, 2012

Climate Politics: It's Laugh Lines Vs. 'Not A Joke'

This Sept. 16 image released by NASA shows the amount of summer sea ice in the Arctic, at center in white, and the 1979 to 2000 average extent for the day shown, with the yellow line. Scientists say sea ice in the Arctic shrank to an all-time low of 1.32 million square miles on Sept. 16, smashing old records for the critical climate indicator.
NASA AP

Originally published on Thu October 18, 2012 10:11 am

Scientists view climate change as one of the world's most pressing long-term problems. But the issue has barely surfaced in the U.S. presidential race. President Obama has taken steps to address climate change during his time in office. Republican challenger Mitt Romney would not make it a priority in his administration.

In fact, as Romney stood on the stage to accept his nomination at the Republican National Convention, he used global warming as a laugh line.

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Science
5:15 pm
Tue October 9, 2012

Nobel In Physics: Your Tax Dollars At Work

In this combination of photos, American physicist David Wineland (left) speaks at a news conference in Boulder, Colo., and French physicist Serge Haroche speaks to the media in Paris after they were named winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize in physics.
Ed Andrieski, Michel Euler AP

Originally published on Wed October 10, 2012 8:45 am

You wouldn't be surprised to learn that a laboratory run by the U.S. Department of Commerce is working on more precise methods to measure stuff.

However, you might not expect it to be at the cutting edge of the mind-bending world of quantum physics. But on Tuesday, David Wineland became the fourth employee at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, a federal lab, to win a Nobel since 1997. Wineland learned he will share the Nobel Prize in physics with Frenchman Serge Haroche for work that's both esoteric and practical.

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Research News
1:38 am
Thu September 27, 2012

Big Quakes Signal Changes Coming To Earth's Crust

A prison official examines the damage a day after a powerful earthquake hit the west coast of Indonesia in Banda Aceh on April 12.
Adek Berry AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu September 27, 2012 7:31 am

On April 11 of this year, an extraordinary cluster of earthquakes struck off Sumatra. The largest shock, magnitude 8.7, produced stronger ground-shaking than any earthquake ever recorded. And it surprised seismologists by triggering more than a dozen moderate earthquakes around the world.

The quakes are also a sign of big changes to come in the Earth's crust.

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Environment
3:35 pm
Mon September 24, 2012

As Arctic Ice Melts, So Does The Snow, And Quickly

Researchers say that springtime snow is melting in the Arctic even faster than Arctic ice. That means less sunlight is reflected off the surface. Bare land absorbs more solar energy, which can contribute to rising temperatures on Earth. Above, a musher races along the Iditarod in the Alaskan tundra in 2007.
Al Grillo AP

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 3:11 pm

Arctic sea ice is in sharp decline this year: Last week, scientists announced that it hit the lowest point ever measured, shattering the previous record.

But it turns out that's not the most dramatic change in the Arctic. A study by Canadian researchers finds that springtime snow is melting away even faster than Arctic ice. That also has profound implications for the Earth's climate.

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Science
3:43 pm
Tue September 11, 2012

'Astonishing' Arctic Ice Melt Sets New Record

Norman Kuring NASA/GSFC/Suomi

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 7:57 pm

Arctic sea ice has melted dramatically this summer, smashing the previous record. The Arctic has warmed dramatically compared with the rest of the planet, and scientists say that's what's driving this loss of ice.

To be sure, ice on the Arctic Ocean always melts in the summer. Historically, about half of it is gone by mid-September. But this year, three-fourths of the ice has melted away, setting a dramatic new benchmark.

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Shots - Health Blog
1:09 pm
Mon September 10, 2012

When Heat Kills: Global Warming As Public Health Threat

A man stands in a fountain in Washington Square Park on July 18, in New York City. Temperatures were expected in the upper 90's during another heat wave in the city.
Mario Tama Getty Images

Originally published on Thu September 13, 2012 9:26 am

The current poster child for global warming is a polar bear, sitting on a melting iceberg. Some health officials argue the symbol should, instead, be a child.

That's because emerging science shows that people respond more favorably to warnings about climate change when it's portrayed as a health issue rather than as an environmental problem.

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Environment
1:19 am
Tue September 4, 2012

As Temps Rise, Cities Combat 'Heat Island' Effect

An art installation of a melting fan sits on display in a subway station Thursday, June 9, 2011, in Atlanta.
David Goldman AP

Originally published on Tue September 4, 2012 3:10 pm

More than 20,000 high-temperature records have been broken so far this year in the United States. And the heat is especially bad in cities, which are heating up about twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

High temperatures increase the risk of everything from asthma to allergies, and can even be deadly. But a researcher in Atlanta also sees this urban heat wave as an opportunity to do something about our warming planet.

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Energy
3:14 pm
Thu August 23, 2012

Romney Energy Plan Touts Oil, Gas, Coal Production

In unveiling his energy policy during a campaign event on Thursday, Mitt Romney says he wants to set a goal of North American energy independence by 2020.
Evan Vucci AP

Originally published on Thu August 23, 2012 5:07 pm

Mitt Romney outlined an energy plan Thursday that would guide his Republican presidency. It focuses heavily on expanding the supply of fossil fuels. The presumptive nominee said the U.S., Mexico and Canada together could reach energy independence by 2020.

But the plan makes no mention of climate change and would end subsidies for cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar.

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Environment
2:34 pm
Wed August 22, 2012

Humans' Role In Antarctic Ice Melt Is Unclear

The Larsen B ice shelf, a large floating ice mass on the eastern side of the Antarctic Peninsula, shattered and separated from the continent 10 years ago. A NASA satellite captured the event in this image from Feb. 23, 2002. The 650 foot-thick, 1,250-square-mile ice shelf had existed since the last ice age.
AP

Originally published on Wed August 22, 2012 5:59 pm

Ten years ago, a piece of ice the size of Rhode Island disintegrated and melted in the waters off Antarctica. Two other massive ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula had suffered similar fates a few years before. The events became poster children for the effects of global warming. But a new study finds that the story isn't quite so simple.

There's no question that unusually warm air triggered the final demise of these huge chunks of ice. But a lingering question is whether these events can be attributed to human-induced global warming.

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World
1:27 am
Tue August 7, 2012

Growing Pains: Nations Balance Growth, Power Needs

Muslim girls study by candlelight inside a religious school in Noida, near New Delhi, on July 31. The collapse of three regional power grids last week caused a massive power outage that blacked out more than half of India.
Parivatran Sharma Reuters /Landov

Originally published on Wed August 8, 2012 12:39 pm

It may take some time to pinpoint the exact cause of India's massive blackouts last week, but the underlying issue for India and many other parts of the developing world is that supply is struggling to keep up with the growing demand for power — an imbalance that can affect the reliability of electric grids.

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Research News
3:40 am
Thu July 12, 2012

U.S. Feel Less Guilt About Environmental Choices

Originally published on Fri July 13, 2012 6:56 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You might think that Americans, renowned for consuming a disproportionate share of the Earth's resources, would feel the most guilty about using up those resources. Not so, according to a new study. NPR's Richard Harris reports on the latest findings from a National Geographic project called Greendex.

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Science
2:45 am
Wed July 11, 2012

Researchers Take Stock Of 2011 Weather

Originally published on Wed July 11, 2012 4:30 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Across America people are sweltering through extreme heat this year, continuing a long-term trend of rising temperatures. Inevitably, many are wondering if the scorching heat is due to global warming. Scientists are expected to dig into the data and grapple with that in the months to come. They've already taken a stab at a possible connection with last year's extreme weather events, like the blistering drought in Texas. NPR's Richard Harris reports.

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Research News
1:25 am
Fri July 6, 2012

Dead Reefs Can Come Back To Life, Study Says

Coral polyps feed in the plankton-rich waters by Santa Catalina, Panama. A new study of coral reefs off the Pacific coast of Panama shows that dead coral reefs may be able to recover from rising ocean temperatures and other environmental disasters.
laszlo-photo Flickr

Originally published on Fri July 6, 2012 10:10 am

Coral reefs may be able to recover from disaster, according to a study that provides a bit of reassurance about the future of these endangered ecosystems.

Coral reefs around the world are at risk as the ocean's temperature continues to rise. Those trends could kill not only coral but also the fish and other species that depend on the reefs. Those reefs are important for people as well.

'Shocking' Reef History

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Science
10:08 am
Wed July 4, 2012

New Subatomic Particle May Be Physics' 'Missing Link'

This graphic depicts a proton-proton collision from the search for the Higgs boson particle.
CERN AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu July 5, 2012 5:51 am

Scientists have discovered a new subatomic particle with profound implications for understanding our universe. On Wednesday, they announced they've found a particle believed to be the long-awaited Higgs boson. Nicknamed the "God particle," it represents the final piece in a theory that explains the basic nature of our universe.

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Science
1:35 am
Mon July 2, 2012

Is The Hunt For The 'God Particle' Finally Over?

This image, from a sensor at the particle accelerator at CERN, is an example of the data signature a Higgs particle might generate.
CERN

Originally published on Mon July 2, 2012 7:17 am

Before we get to the fireworks on the Fourth of July, we might see some pyrotechnics from a giant physics experiment near Geneva, Switzerland.

Scientists there are planning to gather that morning to hear the latest about the decades-long search for a subatomic particle that could help explain why objects in our universe actually weigh anything.

The buzz is that they're closing in on the elusive Higgs particle. That would be a major milestone in the quest to understand the most basic nature of the universe.

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Energy
3:49 am
Sun July 1, 2012

Ahead Of Alaska Drilling, Shell Practices Cleaning Up

Trainees with Royal Dutch Shell learn to deploy oil spill booms in the waters near the port of Valdez in Alaska. The company is training about 200 spill responders.
Richard Harris NPR

Originally published on Mon July 2, 2012 11:02 am

Royal Dutch Shell could drill several exploratory oil wells into the waters off the north shore of Alaska this summer. The potential prize is huge, but so is the risk, should there be an oil spill in this pristine and remote region. And that risk is on everyone's mind since the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago.

Shell is now training hundreds of workers to confront oil in icy waters. But for now, the training is taking place in the calm, ice-free waters far to the south, near the port of Valdez.

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Science
4:22 am
Sat June 23, 2012

Rio+20 Summit Sustains Little More Than Sentiment

U.N. General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's Secretary of the Conference Luis Figueiredo Machado and Rio+20 Secretary General Sha Zukang attend the closing ceremony of the Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro on Friday.
Andre Penner AP

Originally published on Sat June 23, 2012 9:15 pm

The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development was the biggest United Nations conference ever, but it may be one of the biggest duds. It produced no major agreements — just a vaguely worded declaration that has been widely derided.

More than 45,000 people registered for the event in Rio de Janeiro, but diplomats couldn't even agree about the meeting's objective until 2:45 a.m. on Tuesday, just before heads of state and other high-level delegates started arriving in Rio.

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