SANREM researcher wins Nobel Prize in economics

Elinor Ostrom pictured with the other lead PIs of SANREM CRSP Phase III projects: Alex Travis, Corinne Valdivia, Jeff Alwang, and Manuel Reyes

Elinor Ostrom pictured with the other lead PIs of SANREM CRSP Phase III projects: Alex Travis, Corinne Valdivia, Jeff Alwang, and Manuel Reyes

Elinor Ostrom, lead principal investigator for SANREM’s Phase III Long-term Research Award 1, has won the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics for her work on how community institutions can prevent conflict. In announcing the award October 12, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited Ostrom “for her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.”

Ostrom, pictured at right with lead PIs Alex Travis, Corinne Valdivia, Jeff Alwang, and Manuel Reyes, is the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for economics in its 40-year history. Her SANREM CRSP research is related; she is examining how alternative forest management policies and governance regulations in developing countries affect the livelihoods of local forest users and protect the forests. SANREM research shows that government policy reforms such as decentralization do not automatically translate into new property rights for forest users or show clear benefits to the environment.

SANREM Program Director Theo Dillaha expressed his excitement about and support for Ostrom’s award. He indicated that Ostrom is not only a brilliant scientist but that she is also very personable, “a joy to work with and hard to keep up with due to her seemingly boundless energy. The SANREM CRSP has been fortunate to have her on its research team. Her SANREM research in Uganda, Kenya, Mexico, and Bolivia on how government policy reforms such as decentralization affect forest sustainability and forest users has been groundbreaking.”

Ostrom, 76, is a professor of political science at Indiana University and founding director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University. Indiana is one of 17 U.S. universities with which SANREM has partnerships. Ostrom’s SANREM project is titled “Decentralization Reforms and Property Rights: Potentials and Puzzles for Forest Sustainability and Livelihoods.” Co-PIs are Krister Par Andersson, Ruth Meinzen-Dick, Esther Mwangi, Bruce Campbell, and Marty Luckert.

Ostrom’s work centers on how communities manage natural resources such as pastures, lakes, and forests. Though the approach in recent decades has been to regulate or limit the use of such resources or privatize them, Ostrom’s research finds that common property is often very well managed by the people who use it. “Bureaucrats sometimes do not have the correct information, while citizens and users of resources do,” Ostrom said by phone at the press conference announcing her award.

Ostrom’s book “Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action,” published in 1990 by Cambridge University Press, has been cited by scholars and reviewers for its significant contribution to literature on common ownership and management of natural resources.

Ostrom shares the $1.4 million Nobel Prize with Oliver Williamson, a professor in the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. The Nobel committee cited Williamson “for his analysis of economic governance, especially the boundaries of the firm.” Williamson’s work examines why large corporations tend to arise – and why they do not – based on the cost and complexity of transactions, the Nobel committee said.

Ostrom received her Ph.D. in political science from UCLA in 1965. She is past president of the American Political Science Association, which honored her in 2005 with the James Madison Award; and past president of the International Association for the Study of Common Property. In 2008 she won the William H. Riker Prize in Political Science.

Managed by Virginia Tech’s Office of International Research, Education, and Development (OIRED), SANREM conducts applied research to develop knowledge and tools that promote environmentally sustainable agriculture and natural resource management. “OIRED and Virginia Tech are thrilled to learn that Dr. Ostrom is the first woman recipient of the Nobel Prize in economics,” said  S.K. De Datta, associate vice president for international affairs at Virginia Tech, director of OIRED, and administrative principal investigator for the SANREM CRSP program. “We are proud to have her as a researcher for one of our long-term projects.”