Science, women and statistics

The chemist Vanderlan Bolzani, in her interview in this issue of Pesquisa FAPESP, discusses at one point, in a light and timely manner, the relationship between gender and success in a scientific career, pointing out the effects of a still widespread macho culture in this field absorbed and reproduced even by women. There are a multitude of statistics to show that in more developed regions and countries, the female half of the world’s population has advanced fantastically since the twentieth century, with its representation in the workforce equivalent to its percentage of the population as a whole, but progress is slow and it is underrepresented when it comes to occupying leadership positions in almost all fields of human activity—including scientific research.

This time, the question led me on a narrower, almost personal statistical quest: I wondered how many female researchers had been interviewed by Pesquisa FAPESP throughout the life of the publication for the highly regarded monthly profile. These interviews are always with important individuals in Brazil’s scientific and cultural arena, and sometimes internationally, have generally had a unique career trajectory and have made unequivocal contributions to the production of academic knowledge in their field. Well, of the 158 interviews published from October 1999 through August 2014, only 26 were granted by women, or in other words 16.5%. If we look at the last 25 issues of the magazine, including this one, the statistic is much less vulnerable to accusations of sexism in selection because there was an increase in the percentage of women: eight interviews were with women, sharing their experiences and discoveries in research and in life, or 32% of the total. Note that the team of journalists I coordinate (both men and women) is given ample freedom to propose names for the interview in each issue, which suggests that our professional outlook is partially responsible for the statistical results that we have outlined here, without comment, for the appraisal of our readers.

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The preparation of this issue’s cover story, by special editor Carlos Fioravanti with photos by Eduardo Cesar, included a short trip to Monte Santo, a municipality in the countryside of the state of Bahia forever linked to the history of the War of Canudos and the emblematic image of Antonio Conselheiro.  The purpose of the trip had nothing to do with the historical episode that would make the author Euclides da Cunha famous, but rather was an on-site verification of one of the rare genetic diseases now well-mapped throughout Brazil. Strictly speaking, the story (page 16) is on this mapping effort known as the National Census of Isolates (CENISO). Carried out by researchers from various institutions along with local health professionals and organized by the National Institute of Medical Population Genetics (INAGEMP), in April 2014 the census presented a table containing data from the 81 municipalities in which 4,136 people with specific genetic traits—not always diseases—called genetic isolates, were found.

In the field of health and medicine I would also like to highlight the report by our science editor, Ricardo Zorzetto, on some of the interesting results of an investigation into the most aggressive strains of the bacterium that causes tuberculosis, carried out in the biosafety laboratory at the State University of Norte Fluminense (UENF) and at the University of São Paulo (USP). This work has enabled a new understanding of how such strains explosively overcome defense cells, which should control the bacillus, and spread rapidly through the body, causing serious damage to the lungs and other organs.

In the pages focused on technology and innovation, I would like to call your attention to the report by journalist Yuri Vasconcelos on the suborbital rockets that the Aeronautics and Space Institute (IAE) is preparing to launch this fall, and especially to the payload that they will carry, the Liquid Propellant Rocket Booster Stage (EPL), a part of the first rocket engine produced in Brazil to employ liquid fuel and its supply system. The best news in this story is that the liquid fuel that will be tested is a mixture of ethanol made from cane sugar and liquid oxygen.

Last, but not least, I recommend the article by journalist Eduardo Nunomura in the humanities section on a study addressing the actual power of parties in the Brazilian political system and the sophisticated mechanism connecting the municipal, state and federal levels. The study clearly refutes some widely held viewpoints and is worth a look (page 70).