Richard Harris, a science correspondent for NPR, won the radio award, along with editor Alison Richards, for a series that challenged the initial estimates on the size of the devastating Gulf oil spill.
“To get this story, I found several scientists who were willing to drop what they were doing and take up the challenge I presented them,” Harris said. “With the able help of my editor, we quickly put this information out to the public. Though we initially met with resistance, facts are stubborn things, and ultimately the analysis was proven correct.” Harris won the radio award previously in 1988 and 1995.
Harris found independent experts who, using techniques available as well to BP and government specialists, concluded that the size of the spill was much larger than the official estimate of 5000 barrels a day. He located Steven Wereley, a Purdue University scientist, who used a method called particle image velocimetry to estimate that the flow of oil and gas from the crippled well could be 70,000 barrels a day. The NPR reports helped spur the creation of a federal panel (with Wereley as a member) to review the flow-rate estimates. By mid-June, the panel was estimating the flow at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day, in line with what NPR had found. “Richard Harris’s reporting on the Gulf oil spill was an important and ground-breaking development in an ongoing story,” said Janet Raloff of Science News. “His coverage shows how science can shape public discourse on an important topic.” Added freelancer Kathy Sawyer, formerly with The Washington Post: “In digging behind the official estimates, Harris exposed the shortcomings of the BP and government approach to estimating the oil flow.”
Richard 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. He was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner and also a staff writer at the Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California before joining NPR.