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letter from the editor | 260

One step forward, two steps back

One of the criticisms often directed at the science and technology media is that they only report the success stories. The complaint is that while journalism revolves around news, lots of “non-news” is still worthy of coverage, despite tending to be of interest to a smaller audience.

This issue’s cover story does not address “non-news”, but it does revisit a prominent topic from the last decade that is no longer making headlines in science: adult stem-cell therapy. Found primarily in embryos, but also in some adult tissues such as adipose (fat), stem cells are able to transform into various cell types. Embryonic stem cells have a greater plasticity, but the ethical challenges involved in their research has led to many scientists taking an interest in adult stem cells. At the turn of the millennium, scientific articles in leading journals suggested that both types may have equal properties. It was hoped that adult stem cells, when injected into damaged organs such as a heart that has suffered from a heart attack, would promote the creation of blood vessels and cardiac cells. A number of clinical trials—tests on humans—were conducted, which were widely publicized.

Today, we know that adult stem cells are not as versatile as first hoped. The results of the trials were not encouraging, but this does not mean that they have been dismissed as a possible treatment option, or that efforts have been wasted. In science, negative results are also important; even if they do not earn awards or result in publications, they contribute to the advancement of knowledge and help us to reflect on the decision to have started clinical trials. The results have led researchers back to the lab. They want to understand the mechanisms these stem cells use to release compounds that encourage revascularization and irrigation of the damaged heart muscle. The current, more modest hope is that introducing adult stem cells may serve to complement existing treatments.

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The evaluation of the Brazilian graduate education system by CAPES is covered in a report on page 30. The question of whether graduate programs meet their educational objectives is not addressed, but the criteria and weight assigned to each of them is the subject of a wide-ranging—and healthy—debate in academia.

The ongoing nature of this evaluation process makes it important not only to the higher education system, but also to the research system, where its results can be used to guide the distribution of scholarships and resources to particular programs and research groups. Its influence within the higher education and research systems is a cause for debate. There are frequent criticisms that the evaluation model favors established programs, or that criteria weightings vary between different fields of knowledge.

The higher education system has grown consistently for many years, but the increased number of spaces on courses does not necessarily result in higher quality: one example of this is that only 32.86% of programs received a score of 3, the minimum required to remain accredited; just 11.14% were considered excellent, with scores of 6 and 7. However, because poorly performing programs with a score of 1 or 2 lose their accreditation, the practice of regular evaluations encourages teachers and researchers to improve, gradually building a better higher education and research system.

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