One of the most thought-provoking economics reads of the last few years, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s “Why Nations Fail“, basically picks up where Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” left off. But what’s the link to mentoring?
Diamond’s epic (one of those books that really everybody should read) was built around the question “Why did Europeans colonise the Americas, and not the other way around?”. Eschewing the simple – i.e. racist – explanation, it built a compelling thesis that geography played a much larger role than non-geographers might have realised (Diamond is, amongst many things, a Professor of Geography).
That’s all very well, Acemoglu and Robinson go on to say, but why is it the case that there are still such glaring disparities in wealth, sometimes just within a few miles of one another? (Their opening example is the town of Nogales, which straddles the USA-Mexico border, but with considerable differences in life expectancy and income depending on which side you are; North and South Korea offer another poignant illustration).
Their thesis is that after geography has played its part, socio-economic-political factors kick in (Acemoglu and Robinson are, amongst other things, respectively Professors of Economics and Political Science). In particular, they identify and classify social/political systems as either inclusive or extractive (you can probably see where this is going now).
Inclusive systems incentivise their citizens, empowering them to take responsibility for their own lives, and encouraging them to be active decision-makers. Extractive systems, by contrast, are ones in which a small ruling clique (the size can vary) exploits the output of the majority; this acts as a disincentive for creative activity, as citizens will never receive the full fruits of their labour.
A nasty but all too compelling corollary is something called “the iron law of oligarchy” – that once an extractive system has become embedded, it is extremely difficult to reset. The reason being that the only benefit citizens can see is that if they can overthrow the ruling clique, they can take its place. Consequently, one sees a series of revolutions but little change in the lot of the poorest – Russia’s succession from Tsars to Bolsheviks to Stalinists to oligarchs is one instance, while the confusing number of military juntas in South America are another.
As with so many aspects of human behaviour, the principles are to some extent scale-independent, and can be mapped onto smaller groupings. In academia (this is a science blog, so the examples were always going to come from there eventually), they apply very neatly onto the operation of individual research groups.
Inclusive groups are ones which incentivise their members, promote individual responsibility, and give them active roles in their projects. Extractive groups are ones designed to advance the group leader’s career, invariably at the expense of the group’s members, and in which individuals may be disincentivised to such an extent that motivation is hard (and which may therefore encourage bullying, manipulative, or controlling leadership styles).
Importantly, any young scientist who comes out of an extractive group may conclude – like the iron law of oligarchy – that this is the right way to go about things. It creates a recipe for concatenated misery.
Depending on your personality, it’s hard to say whether it’s better to be in charge of an inclusive or an extractive group, but just about anybody can agree which one it is better to be a member of. So supervisors, take the plunge and – frightening though it is – let your students off the leash a little. Who knows, the results might surprise you.
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