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 Star in DC.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, DC, 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.

Harris' book Rigor Mortis was published in 2017. The book covers the biomedicine "reproducibility crisis" — many studies can't be reproduced in other labs, often due to lack of rigor, hence the book's title. Rigor Mortis was a finalist for the 2018 National Academy of Sciences/Keck Communication Award.

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.

More than a million Americans have donated genetic information and medical data for research projects. But how that information gets used varies a lot, depending on the philosophy of the organizations that have gathered the data.

Some hold the data close, while others are working to make the data as widely available to as many researchers as possible — figuring science will progress faster that way. But scientific openness can be constrained b y both practical and commercial considerations.

Three major projects in the United States illustrate these differing philosophies.

There's an astonishing outpouring of new information linking genes and health, thanks to the efforts of humble Englishmen and women such as Chritopeher Fletcher. The 70-year-old man recently drove 90 miles from his home in Nottingham to a radiology clinic outside the city of Manchester.

When Lalita Manrai went to see her doctor for treatment of kidney disease, she noticed that some of the blood test results had different "normal" ranges for African Americans compared with everybody else.

When she asked her doctor which range applied to her — a woman born in India — he said the "everybody else" category was actually based on a study of Europeans, so neither category was right.

Instead, he said, he calculated "normal" for her by averaging the two values.

A study published Monday suggests that fluoride consumed by pregnant women can decrease the IQ of their children. No single study provides definitive answers, but the latest research on this controversial topic will no doubt stir debate.

Fluoride protects teeth from decay, so public health officials celebrate what has been accomplished by putting it in many water supplies. But Christine Till, an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, also wondered about potential downsides.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Researchers say they have identified the first clearly effective treatments for Ebola, a deadly disease that continues to spread in central Africa. The experimental drugs will be made widely available in the centers that have already treated thousands of patients.

This achievement is particularly notable given the extraordinary circumstances: Scientists in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been running a study in the midst of a deadly epidemic and in the face of armed assaults on doctors.

In a time of climate change denial and vaccine resistance, scientists worry they are losing public trust. But it's just the opposite, a survey released Friday finds.

Public trust of scientists is growing. It's on a par with our trust of the military and far above trust of clergy, politicians and journalists.

An unusual state regulation that dictates how doctors need to treat a specific disease appears to be paying off in New York, according to a study published Tuesday.

The disease is sepsis, which is the most common cause of death in hospitals. And the regulations came into being after the story of 12-year-old Rory Staunton became a cause célèbre.

As his mother Orlaith Staunton tells it, Rory came home from school one day with a scrape he'd gotten in gym class. It didn't seem like a big deal, but Rory's health quickly took a turn.

Sequencing a person's DNA is now a routine task. That reality has left doctors looking for ways to put the technology to work.

A decade ago, a top federal scientist said, "Whether you like it or not, a complete sequencing of newborns is not far away." Dr. Francis Collins, who made that statement, has been head of the National Institutes of Health for the intervening decade. But his prophecy hasn't come to pass, for both scientific and practical reasons.

Your body has about 40 trillion cells, and they all arose from a single fertilized egg. But it turns out the DNA in many of those cells is no longer a perfect clone of that original one.

A study published Thursday in the journal Science shows that our body's cells are a mosaic, with many subtle genetic variations.

How do we grow from a single fertilized egg into a fully grown person with trillions of cells? Our cells divide, of course!

And it's no mean feat. Each time a cell divides, it must duplicate our 23 pairs of chromosomes and make sure each "daughter" cell ends up with a complete set of genes.

Errors are potentially fatal to the cell. Runaway cell division, which is the hallmark of cancer, is also serious business.

No wonder then that biologists have been studying cell division for as long as they've known about cells.

Children who live in areas with bad air pollution are more likely to develop asthma, which is the most common chronic illness among young people. But when you clean up the air does that actually protect the health of kids?

A study published Tuesday in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, looked to answer that question.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Researchers are developing a smartphone app that, with the help of a simple paper funnel, might help parents detect fluid buildup in a child's ear — one symptom of an ear infection.

The app is still experimental and would require clearance by the Food and Drug Administration before it could hit the market. But early data, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, suggest that the smartphone can perform as well as an expensive test in a doctor's office.

Scientists are gearing up a major study to find out whether a drug can silence the gene that causes a devastating illness called Huntington's disease.

This development follows the discovery that the experimental drug reduced levels of the damaged protein that causes this mind-robbing ailment. The new study will determine whether that drug can also stop progression of the disease.

It is also another sign that drugs built with DNA, or its cellular collaborator RNA, can be powerful tools for tempering diseases that until now have seemed out of reach.

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