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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4:42pm

Thu August 22, 2013
Environment

'Uncertain' Science: Judith Curry's Take On Climate Change

Originally published on Fri August 23, 2013 4:10 pm

Judith Curry with her dogs, Rosie (left) and Bruno, in the mountains near Lake Tahoe. The climatologist focuses on the uncertainties of climate change far more than on the consensus of climate scientists.
Richard Harris NPR

While the Obama administration presses forward with plans to deal with climate change, Congress remains steadfast against taking action. It's not easy to find a scientist who will agree with that point of view. But Republicans have found an ally in a climate scientist by the name of Judith Curry.

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1:57am

Tue August 20, 2013
Environment

How Extreme Australian Rains Made Global Sea Levels Drop

Originally published on Tue August 20, 2013 8:19 am

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

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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4:10pm

Thu August 8, 2013
Environment

Swinging CO2 Levels Show The Earth Is 'Breathing' More Deeply

Originally published on Thu August 8, 2013 8:34 pm

Plants accumulate carbon in the spring and summer, and they release it back into the atmosphere in the fall in winter. And a change in the landscape of the Arctic tundra, seen here, means that shrubs hold onto snow better, which keeps the organic-rich soils warmer and more likely to release carbon dioxide that's stored there.
Jean-Erick Pasquier Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Plant life on our planet soaks up a fair amount of the carbon dioxide that pours out of our tailpipes and smokestacks. Plants take it up during the summer and return some of it to the air in the winter. And a new study shows that those "breaths" have gotten deeper over the past 50 years.

This isn't just a curiosity. Plant life is helping to reduce the speed at which carbon dioxide is building up in our atmosphere. That's slowing the global warming, at least marginally, so scientists are eager to understand how this process works. The new study provides some clues.

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2:17am

Fri August 2, 2013
Environment

Our Once And Future Oceans: Taking Lessons From Earth's Past

Originally published on Wed September 4, 2013 11:48 am

Changes to the acidity of the Earth's ancient oceans affected the coral reefs more than 50 million years ago. And researchers are using that information to try to predict how the planet might fare in our rapidly changing climate. Above, the Wheeler Reef section of the Great Barrier Reef.
Auscape UIG via Getty Images

One of the most powerful ways to figure out how the Earth will respond to all the carbon dioxide we're putting into the atmosphere is to look back into the planet's history.

Paleontologists have spent a lot of time trying to understand a time, more than 50 million years ago, when the planet was much hotter than it is today. They're finding that the news isn't all bad when you take the long view.

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4:10pm

Wed July 31, 2013
Energy

Canadian Regulators Investigate Mysterious Tar Sands Spills

Originally published on Wed July 31, 2013 5:05 pm

Roughnecks build a drilling rig at the MEG Energy site near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. In addition to large, open-pit mining operations, tar sands oil can be extracted from the ground by pumping down high-pressure steam.
Michael S. Williamson The Washington Post/Getty Images

Government regulators in Canada are investigating a series of mysterious oil spills around tar sands operations in Alberta. Thick oil is gurgling up unexpectedly from the ground instead of flowing through the wells that were built to collect it.

The spills are raising questions about a technology that's rapidly expanding to extract fossil fuels that could ultimately end up in the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

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2:15am

Tue July 30, 2013
Research News

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

Originally published on Tue July 30, 2013 10:11 am

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

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 — 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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4:52pm

Wed July 24, 2013
Environment

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

Originally published on Wed July 24, 2013 6:34 pm

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

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 — 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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4:03pm

Tue July 16, 2013
Science

Eavesdropping On Nature Gives Clues To Biodiversity

Originally published on Tue July 16, 2013 9:00 pm

Scientists could use recordings of wildlife to monitor the movements of invasive species like the European starling.
Liz Leyden iStockphoto.com

Biology professor Mitch Aide uses his ears to learn about the frogs, birds and insects that are all around him. This scientist at the University of Puerto Rico is trying to track how animal populations are affected by a world that's under increasing pressure from human activities.

Aide says, "We would like to have five, 10, 20 years of data of how populations are changing."

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1:46am

Fri July 12, 2013
Environment

Sweeping Parts Of Southern Seas Could Become A Nature Preserve

Originally published on Fri July 12, 2013 7:37 pm

The "Giant Tabular Iceberg" floats in Antarctica's Ross Sea in December 2011. Under a proposed new international agreement, large sections of the oceans around Antarctica would become protected as a marine preserve.
Camille Seaman Barcroft Media/Landov

The area of ocean set aside as a nature preserve could double or triple in the coming days, depending on the outcome of a meeting in Germany. Representatives from 24 countries and the European Union are considering setting aside large portions of ocean around Antarctica as a protected area. And the deal may hinge on preserving some fishing rights.

There are two proposals on the table: One would set aside huge parts of the Southern Ocean around East Antarctica; the other would focus on the Ross Sea, south of New Zealand.

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3:33am

Fri June 28, 2013
Environment

Put Down Oil Drill, Pick Up The Test Tube: Making Fuel From Yeast

Originally published on Fri June 28, 2013 9:41 pm

Jay Keasling (left), speaking with Rajit Sapar at the Joint BioEnergy Institute, is pioneering a technique to develop diesel fuel from yeast.
Courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

What if we could get our gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel from yeast instead of from oil wells? That's not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, it's already happening on a small scale. And there's a vigorous research effort to ramp this up on a massive scale.

One of the more innovative approaches uses a new technology called "synthetic biology." Jay Keasling is one of the leaders in this hot field.

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3:04am

Thu June 27, 2013
Environment

This Climate Fix Might Be Decades Ahead Of Its Time

Originally published on Thu June 27, 2013 2:35 pm

Global Thermostat's pilot plant in Menlo Park, Calif., pulls carbon dioxide from the surrounding air. The next challenge is to find uses for the captured gas.
Courtesy of Global Thermostat

Every year, people add 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the air, mostly by burning fossil fuels. That's contributing to climate change. A few scientists have been dreaming about ways to pull some of that CO2 out of the air, but face stiff skepticism and major hurdles. This is the story of one scientist who's pressing ahead.

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6:06pm

Tue June 25, 2013
Environment

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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7:28am

Tue June 25, 2013
The Two-Way

Obama To Lay Out Broad Plan To Address Climate Change

Originally published on Tue June 25, 2013 1:45 pm

The Capitol dome is seen behind the Capitol Power Plant, which provides power to buildings in the Capitol complex in Washington, D.C.
Carolyn Kaster AP

Update at 2:38 p.m. ET. Obama Lays Out Plan:

In an address at Georgetown University in Washington, President Obama laid out a sweeping new plan to address climate change.

As expected, Obama said his plan seeks to cap the carbon emissions of power plants.

Obama also said the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to Texas, would only be approved by the State Department if it aligned with the "nation's interest."

That is if "this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," Obama said.

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2:41pm

Thu June 6, 2013
The Salt

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

Originally published on Mon June 10, 2013 4:38 pm

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

Last month, we told you about companies that are growing salmon on dry land. That's an effective — but expensive — 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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12:18pm

Fri May 31, 2013
Research News

Gizmo Uses Lung Cells To Sniff Out Health Hazards In Urban Air

Originally published on Fri May 31, 2013 8:23 pm

Adam Cole NPR

Cities like Houston are dotted with air-sniffing monitors that measure levels of benzene and other potentially unhealthy air pollutants. But those monitors can't answer the question we care about most: Is the air safe?

That's because there's no simple relationship between toxic air pollutants and health risks. Researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill are trying to get a leg up on that problem. They are building an instrument that uses human lung cells to measure health hazards in the air more directly.

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