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Letter from the Editor | 250

Handling difficult topics

At the story meeting held by the Pesquisa FAPESP team to determine which reports would run in this issue, one of the discussions was about the balance of important topics addressed:  a cover story on AIDS, treatments for those addicted to crack, the follow-up of the work to identify human remains uncovered in Perus Cemetery in São Paulo’s capital in 1990.  Would the year’s final issue be too intense?

By the topics, the response seemed to point to the affirmative.  There was talk about putting some of the pieces in future issues, but all had a rationale for remaining: December 1 is International AIDS Awareness Day, an opportune moment to discuss the progress in the fight against this epidemic.  The reports about crack and Perus involve programs that are partly dependent on municipal resources: the administrative change set to occur in January 2017 makes it a perfect time to present the findings obtained up to this point.

The existence of what’s known as a “hook,” in journalistic jargon, is not the only reason we kept the three pieces on the menu for this issue:  despite referring to subjects that may be considered difficult, the reports help the reading public better understand the issues and present perspectives and encouraging results.  The cover story shows that the AIDS epidemic continues to spread.  Enormous advances have enabled a longer life span and improvements in the quality of life of HIV-positive patients in recent decades.  Research continues, especially with regard to preventing transmission among the most vulnerable groups, including through the use of medicines.  Studies show that preventing the infection can reduce the costs of care to AIDS patients by 30%.  At the same time, special attention has been given to fighting discrimination against these groups.

The report about São Paulo’s municipal and state resources for meeting the needs of those dependent on crack shows that despite the differences in positions between spheres of government, the approach is similar.  A common feature of both programs is that they offer sites where addicts can receive basic care such as showers and haircuts, allowing them to feel comfortable, so that in time, they will come back to seek treatment for their addition.  The focus of the report is a strategy that is innovative, misunderstood and (perhaps as a result) controversial called contingency management, which consists of offering financial compensation through the distribution of vouchers in return for abstinence. The experiment of employing this principle for the first time in treating crack addiction was successful: 21% of those experiencing the strategy became abstinent for the entire period of the study (three months).  In comparison, none of the members of the control group remained abstinent during this period.  The numbers may seem insignificant, but in this field, another point shared by the approaches is that there is more than one way forward:  treatment that works for one person may not have an effect on another.

The human remains unearthed from a ditch in the Perus cemetery provide a grim – and still open – chapter of Brazil’s recent history. More than 1,000 boxes currently in safekeeping at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) are being examined by a multidisciplinary team of archeologists, medical examiners, bioanthropologists and forensic dentists who carefully clean, organize and classify the items in an attempt to identify them by matching information revealed by the bones to data obtained from families of the disappeared.  The result of a partnership between Unifesp, the São Paulo municipal government and the federal government, the Perus Work Group is expected to complete its work by the end of 2017.  It is an effort that has lasted decades, contributing as well to advances in Brazilian forensic sciences.

Shortly after the story meeting, we received a call from an attentive observer of science policy discussions: “You need to interview this guy.” He was referring to South African physicist Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute in Canada. Turok was visiting Brazil for the symposium commemorating the fifth anniversary of the South American Institute for Fundamental Research (SAIFR), headquartered in São Paulo, which receives funding from FAPESP.

Turok says that to be creative, young students need to be placed directly in contact with cutting-edge knowledge – when necessary, they can eventually learn what they need in order to advance.  The Perimeter Institute does not look for researchers whose studies have earned high impact scores.  Instead, they look for those who are rather unconventional, from different origins and genders.  In an interview, Turok also talked about his experience in establishing an interdisciplinary institute in Africa devoted to mathematic analysis of scientific data in any field. This riveting interview earned its place in the issue, together with the interview with another physicist, the Argentine Gabriela González, spokesperson for LIGO, the experiment responsible for detecting gravitational waves.  She talked about the process involved in science’s most fascinating event of 2016.