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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.

Cancer drugs cost far less to develop than industry-backed research asserts, an analysis published Monday asserts. Research and development costs are a major reason that drug companies justify high prices, so this dispute has a direct bearing on the cost of medical care.

American doctors have been noticing an increase in osteoarthritis of the knee. They have suspected two driving forces: more old people and more people who are overweight.

A study published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that's far from the whole story. Even correcting for body mass index and age, osteoarthritis of the knee is twice as common now as it was before the 1950s.

It's always appealing to think that there could be an easy technical fix for a complicated and serious problem.

For example, wouldn't it be great to have a vaccine to prevent addiction?

"One of the things they're actually working on is a vaccine for addiction, which is an incredibly exciting prospect," said Dr. Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services.

Science relies on the careful collection and analysis of facts. Science also benefits from human judgment, but that intuition isn't necessarily reliable. A study finds that scientists did a poor job forecasting whether a successful experiment would work on a second try.

That matters, because scientists can waste a lot of time if they read the results from another lab and eagerly chase after bum leads.

Zika is a scary virus because of the terrible birth defects it can cause. Now scientists have a clearer sense of the size of that risk.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 2,549 pregnant women with the Zika virus in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories between Jan. 1, 2016 and April 25, 2017. The CDC found that 122 of these women — about 5 percent — gave birth to babies with birth defects such as small heads (known as microcephaly).

Doctors can save thousands of lives a year if they act promptly to identify sepsis, an often lethal reaction to infection. Sometimes called blood poisoning, sepsis is the leading cause of death in hospitals.

A 4-year-old regulation in New York state compels doctors and hospitals to follow a certain protocol, involving a big dose of antibiotics and intravenous fluids. It's far from perfect — about a quarter of patients still die from sepsis. But early intervention is helping.

Smell, the thinking goes, is not our strongest sense. Our lowly noses are eclipsed by our ability to see the world around us, hear the sound of music and feel the touch of a caress. Even animals, we're taught, have a far more acute sense of smell than we do.

But one scientist argues the idea of an inferior sense of smell stems from a 19th-century myth.

If you hear rock star Rod Stewart's husky voice in a radio spot imploring you to get your thyroid checked for cancer, don't be seduced.

An industry-backed foundation has been putting out that message, with Stewart as a celebrity spokesman, but it's not based on sound science. No major medical organization recommends mass screening for thyroid cancer.

A funding crunch for scientific research is creating incentives for scientists to cut corners and even occasionally to cheat.

This is one of the findings in a new report about scientific integrity from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Sometimes scientists adopt sloppy practices that can lead to false conclusions. This can hamper progress in science. And taxpayer dollars are on the line.

It's been 25 years since the National Academy of Sciences set its standards for appropriate scientific conduct, and the world of science has changed dramatically in that time. So now the academies of science, engineering and medicine have updated their standards.

The report published Tuesday, "Fostering Integrity in Research," shines a spotlight on how the research enterprise as a whole creates incentives that can be detrimental to good research.

Most potential new drugs fail when they're tested in people. These failures are not only a major disappointment, they sharply drive up the cost of developing new drugs.

A major reason for these failures is that most new drugs are first tested out in mice, rats or other animals. Often those animal studies show great promise.

But mice aren't simply furry little people, so these studies often lead science astray. Some scientists are now rethinking animal studies to make them more effective for human health.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is being sued by a man who claims Murray "raped and molested him" three decades ago, when the man was 15 years old.

The mayor held a brief news conference Friday to deny the allegations.

The astronomer Carl Sagan said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Last week, a physician made the extraordinary claim that he had an effective treatment for sepsis, sometimes known as blood poisoning.

Sepsis is a bodywide inflammation, usually triggered by infection, and the leading cause of death in hospitals, taking 300,000 lives a year. So, even a 15 percent improvement in survival would save 40,000 lives — the number of Americans who die on the highway each year, or from breast cancer.

Cancer can be caused by tobacco smoke or by an inherited trait, but new research finds that most of the mutations that lead to cancer crop up naturally.

The authors of the study published Thursday poked a hornet's nest by suggesting that many cancers are unavoidable.

It's hard not to get excited about news of a potentially effective treatment for sepsis, a condition that leads to multiple organ failure and kills more people in the hospital than any other disease.

But there have been so many false promises about this condition over the years, it's also wise to treat announcements — like one published online by the journal, Chest — with caution.

Biomedical research and public health are among the big losers in the Trump administration's proposed budget.

The proposal promises:

  • A "major reorganization" in the National Institutes of Health, which supports most of the nation's research on diseases and treatments. That includes a cut of $5.8 billion, about 20 percent of NIH's $30 billion budget.

When you pick up a newspaper and read a story about the latest results on breast cancer, autism, depression or other ailments, what are the odds that finding will stand the test of time?

The answer, according to a study in the journal PLOS One is: flip a coin.

One of the great treats of following an Agatha Christie mystery (my favorite being Hercule Poirot) is that you know there will be an "Aha!" moment at the end. The fastidious, mustachioed detective will pull together all the disparate facts and present a compelling answer.

Many studies designed to try out new drugs simply languish. They don't attract enough patients, and they aren't completed. That slows medical progress.

But here's a story of one study that has bucked that trend — in fact, it is so popular, scientists had to put the brakes on it for a while.

There's a lesson about one of the testosterone studies released this week that has nothing to do with testosterone: The study on how testosterone affects anemia was designed with an ethical lapse that nobody noticed until the study was complete.

If you think your hearing is just fine, think again. A federal study finds that about a quarter of people between the ages of 20 and 69 who think their hearing is good or excellent are in fact showing signs of hearing loss.

Hearing loss is often chalked up to noisy work environments or to aging. To be sure, those are major reasons that people's hearing becomes less acute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest survey on hearing finds that 24 percent of hearing loss is due to loud workplaces.

A widely used blood test to measure blood-sugar trends can give imprecise results, depending on a person's race and other factors. This test means diabetes can sometimes be misdiagnosed or managed poorly.

Doctors have been cautioned before that results from the A1C test don't have pinpoint accuracy. A study published Tuesday underscores that shortcoming as it applies to people who carry the sickle cell trait.

When scientists first read out the human genome 15 years ago, there were high hopes that we'd soon understand how traits like height are inherited. It hasn't been easy. A huge effort to find height-related genes so far only explains a fraction of this trait.

Now scientists say they've made some more headway. And the effort is not just useful for understanding how genes determine height, but how they're involved in driving many other human traits.

Screening for lung cancer using low-dose CT scans can save lives, but at a cost: Tests frequently produce anxiety-producing false alarms and prompt unnecessary procedures.

A study from the Veterans Health Administration lays out the considerable effort required by both patients and doctors to undertake screening.

"I have heard people say 'what's the big deal, it's just a CT,' " says Dr. Linda Kinsinger, who ran the study at the VA. "But I think what we tried to show is it's a lot more than just a CT."

The first results from a major project to measure the reliability of cancer research have highlighted a big problem: Labs trying to repeat published experiments often can't.

That's not to say that the original studies are wrong. But the results of a review published Thursday, in the open-access journal eLife, are a sobering reminder that science often fails at one of its most basic requirements — an experiment in one lab ought to be reproducible in another one.

Chances are your doctor has stopped taking notes with pen and paper and moved to computer records. That is supposed to help coordinate your care.

Increasingly, researchers are also exploring these computerized records for medical studies and gleaning facts that help individual patients get better care.

A Canadian doctor who is opposed to a widely used drug for morning sickness has fired another volley.

Writing in the journal PLOS ONE, Dr. Navindra Persaud in the department of family and community medicine at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, notes that an unpublished study that supported use of the drug, conducted in the 1970s, is seriously flawed.

Studies of fish oil and health are like studies about coffee — there's plenty of contradictory information out there.

With that in mind, here's the latest turn: A Danish study finds that women who took fish oil supplements during pregnancy reduced the risk of asthma in their children.

The federal government will pay more than $100,000 to give someone a kidney transplant, but after three years, the government will often stop paying for the drugs needed to keep that transplanted kidney alive.

Constance Creasey is one of the thousands of people who find themselves caught up by this peculiar feature of the federal kidney program.

There's a bump in the number of cases of the mumps this year in the United States.

This highly infectious disease is much less hazardous than it was decades ago, but health officials are still reacting strongly to several big outbreaks.

Most years, health officials report a few hundred cases of mumps, but this year the total has topped 4,000. Most are clustered in Iowa, Illinois and, worst of all, Arkansas, which has more than 2,200 cases.

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