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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Science
3:02 pm
Wed February 8, 2012

'Amasia': The Next Supercontinent?

This map shows what the Earth's landmass looked like in the Precambrian Era, about 738 million years ago.
Chris Scotese University of Texas at Arlington

Originally published on Mon February 13, 2012 8:33 am

The Earth's continents are in constant motion. On at least three occasions, they have all collided to form one giant continent. If history is a guide, the current continents will coalesce once again to form another supercontinent. And a study in Nature now shows how that could come about.

You can think of continents as giant puzzle pieces shuffling around the Earth. When they drift apart, mighty oceans form. When they come together, oceans disappear. And it's all because continents sit on moving plates of the Earth's crust.

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The Two-Way
1:35 pm
Wed January 11, 2012

EPA Creates Website To ID Biggest Emitters Of Greenhouse Gases

Originally published on Wed January 11, 2012 1:39 pm

Ever wondered who the big greenhouse-gas emitters are in your neck of the woods? The answer is now just a click away.

The US Environmental Protection Agency today unveiled a new website that identifies most of the nation's biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. It lets you, for example:

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World
6:00 am
Sun December 11, 2011

At Last, Nations Agree To Landmark Climate Deal

Tired delegates work into the early hours of Sunday morning on the final day of the climate talks in Durban, South Africa.
Rajesh Jantilal AFP/Getty Images

After a third sleepless night, climate negotiators in Durban South Africa finally found a way to reach a compromise early Sunday morning. The deal doesn't set hoped-for new targets to limit global warming, but delegates ultimately decided to embrace it rather than risk a major collapse of this international process.

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Environment
1:23 pm
Thu December 8, 2011

At Climate Talks, Frustration And Interruptions

The U.S. climate change envoy Todd Stern delivers a speech on Dec. 8 in Durban, South Africa, during the U.N. Climate Change Conference. The climate talks entered their second week entangled in a thick mesh of issues with no guarantee that negotiators and their ministers will be able to sort them out.
Stephane De Sakutin AFP/Getty Images

United Nations climate talks, like many negotiations, are a blend of dead seriousness and theater. Today at the talks in Durban, South Africa, an American college student provided a moment of theater by shouting out a short, unauthorized speech during the main session of the talks. Her interruption encapsulated frustration with the pace of the talks in general, and the United States' role in particular.

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Environment
2:00 am
Wed December 7, 2011

At Climate Talks, Resistance From India, China, U.S.

Fundamental disagreements among the nations attending the U.N. climate conference in Durban, South Africa, may stall a possible deal.

Environment
12:51 pm
Tue November 29, 2011

What Will Become Of The Kyoto Climate Treaty?

Key provisions of the Kyoto Protocol expire in December of 2012, and experts say there's no real global framework in place to replace the treaty that was supposed to be the first step toward ambitious actions on climate change. Above, a coal-fired power plant in eastern China. China is now the leading carbon dioxide emitter in the world.
AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Sat December 3, 2011 12:45 pm

As diplomats from around the world gather in Durban, South Africa, for talks about climate change, a big question looms: What will become of the Kyoto climate treaty, which was negotiated with much fanfare in 1997. The treaty was supposed to be a first step toward much more ambitious actions on climate change, but it is now on the brink of fading into irrelevance. That could have major implications for the future of United Nations climate talks.

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Environment
10:01 pm
Sun November 27, 2011

Ahead Of Climate Talks, U.S. Leadership In Question

The U.S. is second only to China in emitting gases that cause global warming. Above, the smoke stacks at American Electric Power's Mountaineer power plant in West Virginia.
Saul Loeb AFP/Getty Images

A new round of United Nations climate talks is getting under way in Durban, South Africa, Monday. And domestic struggles here in the United States are hampering the global talks.

The United States is second only to China in emitting gases that cause global warming. Despite a presidential pledge to reduce emissions two years ago, we're spewing more carbon dioxide than ever into the atmosphere.

That's putting a crimp on the 20-year-long struggle to develop a meaningful climate treaty.

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Environment
12:49 pm
Fri November 18, 2011

Climate Panel: More Extreme Weather On The Way

A U.N. climate panel says that we can expect more extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change. Above, people run from a high wave on Nov. 8 in Nice, France, where heavy rain and flooding forced hundreds to evacuate.
Vallery Hache AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Fri November 18, 2011 2:55 pm

Brace yourself for more extreme weather. A group of more than 200 scientists convened by the United Nations says in a new report that climate change will bring more heat waves, more intense rainfall and more expensive natural disasters.

These conclusions are from the latest effort of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a consensus statement from researchers around the world.

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Research News
10:01 pm
Thu October 20, 2011

'Living Fossils' Just A Branch On Cycad Family Tree

A giant dioon, seen at the United States Botanic Garden, is part of the cycad family and can be found growing in Mexico and Central America.

Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Fri October 21, 2011 6:46 am

Although dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, there are still thought to be a few species left over from those days. Plants called cycads are among these rare "living fossils" — they have remained pretty much unchanged for more than 300 million years, but a study in Science magazine suggests that glamorous title may not be deserved.

There's no time machine in Washington, D.C., but Harvard botanist Sarah Mathews leads me to what's arguably the next best thing — a room made of glass in the U.S. Botanic Garden, just downhill from the U.S. Capitol.

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Research News
1:13 pm
Wed October 5, 2011

Nobel-Winning Chemist Fought Hard For Acceptance

Daniel Schectman, left, discusses the quasicrystal's structure with collaborators in 1985, just months after shaking the foundations of materials science. Schectman was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

H. Mark Helfer NIST

If you or your mate shaved this morning with one of those thin-foil electric shavers, that face probably brushed up against a strange form of matter called a quasicrystal. Norelco is unlikely to get a Nobel Prize for that invention, but the man who discovered quasicrystals, Daniel Shechtman, will get this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. And it didn't come easy.

Crystals, like diamonds and quartz, hold their sparkly allure because of the way the atoms inside those rocks line up so neatly.

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Research News
11:39 am
Fri September 23, 2011

New Data Put Cosmic Speed Limit To The Test

A neutrino detector like this one, seen at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1995, was used to collect data claiming that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light.
Fred Rick Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

A fundamental rule of nature is that nothing travels faster than the speed of light. Now, physicists working in Europe say they may have discovered a sub-atomic particle that breaks that speed limit. But that extraordinary claim is being greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism.

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Environment
10:01 pm
Thu September 15, 2011

Arctic Ice Hits Near-Record Low, Threatening Wildlife

Ice on the Arctic Ocean has melted to its second-lowest level on record. Above, ice in a fjord in Greenland.
Slim Allagui AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Fri September 16, 2011 10:00 pm

Ice on the Arctic Ocean has melted to its second-lowest level on record, according to researchers in Colorado who track this trend. The summertime melt coincides with a dramatic warming over the past decade, and it's already affecting wildlife in the Arctic Ocean.

The Arctic ice comes and goes with the seasons; typically about half of the wintertime ice melts away by mid-September. After that low point, the ice regrows. In 2007, the amount of ice left in September hit a dramatic low.

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Science
1:47 pm
Thu September 15, 2011

This Machine Can Suck Carbon Out Of The Air

Carbon Engineering's machine, currently under construction, will draw carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into a usable product.
Carbon Engineering

David Keith is a bit fidgety. Maybe that's because venture capitalists have asked to come see his carbon dioxide machine. Maybe it's because the project is running months behind schedule, as experiments so often do. Maybe it's because his critics say it'll never work.

Or maybe it's a taste of excitement, because it seems entirely possible that the trailer-truck-size machine that he's leaning up against is actually going to work.

"It's amazing to see all this talk and paper get turned into hardware," he says. "I really love it."

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Space
1:14 pm
Thu September 15, 2011

Here Come The Suns: New Planet Orbits Two Stars

NASA's Kepler mission has discovered a planet that circles two stars instead of one. The planet, shown as the black dot in this artist's illustration, is similar to Saturn, though it is more dense and travels in a 229-day circular orbit around its two stars.
R. Hurt NASA/JPL-Caltech

Originally published on Thu September 15, 2011 9:03 pm

A trillion is a huge number — when you're talking dollars or euros. But a trillion miles is not so much in the cosmic scheme of things. Astronomers say they've now found a planet that orbits two suns a mere thousand trillion miles from here. It's yet another example of a weird solar system being discovered around nearby stars.

Two years ago, NASA launched the Kepler observatory to look for Earth-like planets beyond our own solar system. It has found more than 1,000 apparent planets around distant suns.

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Race To The Arctic
3:00 am
Sat August 20, 2011

Trying To Unravel The Mysteries Of Arctic Warming

A polar bear makes its way across the ice in Canada's Northwest Passage. Melting ice in the Arctic will make survival increasingly difficult for wildlife in the region.
Jackie Northam NPR

The Arctic is heating up faster than anyplace on Earth. And as it heats, the ice is growing thinner and melting faster. Scientists say that sometime this century, the Arctic Ocean could be free of ice during the summers. And that transition is likely to be chaotic.

Arctic sea ice has always seen dramatic swings. Every winter, the ocean is completely covered with ice. It starts to melt in the late spring, and by September about half that ice has melted away.

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Research News
10:01 pm
Thu August 18, 2011

Black Researchers Getting Fewer Grants From NIH

A new study finds that when applying for scientific research grants from the National Institutes of Health, white researchers succeeded 25 percent of the time, while blacks about 15 percent of the time. Above, the Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center at the NIH Campus in Bethesda, Md.
NIH

If you glance around university corridors or scientific meetings, it's obvious that African-Americans are uncommon in the world of science. A study in Science magazine now finds that the black scientists who do start careers in medical research are at a big disadvantage when it comes to funding.

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Environment
3:00 pm
Wed August 17, 2011

Caribbean Coral Catch Disease From Sewage

White pox disease on a frond of the endangered elkhorn coral on Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys. The bacteria the overlying coral tissue, exposing the coral's white limestone skeleton underneath.
James W. Porter University of Georgia

Human beings occasionally get diseases from animals, such as swine flu, rabies and anthrax. A new study finds that humans can also spread disease to wildlife, with grim results. A bacterium from our guts is now rampaging through coral reefs in the Caribbean.

Those reefs were already in slow decline, but they took a huge hit starting in 1996, when a disease called white pox appeared in the Florida Keys.

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Animals
4:14 am
Sun August 7, 2011

Fighting Decline, Micronesia Creates Shark Sanctuary

Micronesian islands have declared vast areas of the Pacific Ocean to be a sanctuary for sharks. It's the latest move in a trend to create zones where sharks can live undisturbed.

These top predators are in serious decline around the world because they are being over-fished. Mostly, they are caught to feed an insatiable appetite for shark-fin soup in Asia.

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Space
2:59 am
Fri August 5, 2011

Dark Streaks On Mars May Be Sign Of Liquid Water

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Originally published on Fri August 5, 2011 11:58 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Scientists have discovered features on Mars that could be signs of running water. If that's true, it would be big news for scientists looking for signs of life on Mars. After all, practically everywhere on Earth where there's running water, there's also life.

NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS: First off, we already know that Mars has water on it, lots of water. But Phil Christensen, a long-term Mars watcher from Arizona State University, says that knowledge isn't all that exciting to biologists.

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