ASU Magazine March 2010 Vol 13 No 3 : Page 20

A 6:30 a.m. phone call Elinor Ostromʼs world, placing the modest ASU professor in the midst of a whirlwind of media activity she had won the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize the first woman ever in Economic Sciences, t o wi n th e awa r d. Within hours, she was day with a news confer- ence and interviews. The award, shared with Oliver E. Williamson of the University of California at Berkeley, caps a distinguished career that began about 45 years ago, when she earned her Ph.D. in polit- ical science from the University of California at Los Angeles. As a woman she had faced roadblocks even getting into a doctoral pro- gram, and she had been barred from taking calculus as an under- graduate.The Nobel was a sweet, albeit momentous, surprise. But her colleagues atASU and at Indiana University (IU), where she also holds an appointment, knew it was richly deserved. “Elinor is an intel- lectual leader, a brilliant and innovative scientist whose work has a huge relevance in sustainability and environmental issues,” said Sander van der Leeuw, director of the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who persuaded Ostrom to join ASU part-time in 2006. “She combines economics, anthropology, political science and deci- sion-making in her work, and she is committed to the major issues of our society. She is the kind of transdisciplinary scientist we seek Collective action, singular accomplishment ASU Magazine interviews 2009 Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom By Sarah Auffret

Collective Action, Singular Accomplishment

Sarah Auffret

A 6:30 a.m. phone cal l las t Oc tober upended Elinor Ostrom’s world, placing the modest ASU research professor in the midst of a whirlwind of media activity.<br /> <br /> Ostrom learned she had won the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, the first woman ever to win the award.<br /> <br /> Within hours, she was booked solid for the day with a news conference and interviews.<br /> <br /> The award, shared with Oliver E. Williamson of the University of California at Berkeley, caps a distinguished career that began about 45 years ago, when she earned her Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Los Angeles. As a woman she had faced roadblocks even getting into a doctoral program, and she had been barred from taking calculus as an undergraduate.<br /> <br /> The Nobel was a sweet, albeit momentous, surprise. But her colleagues at ASU and at Indiana University (IU), where she also holds an appointment, knew it was richly deserved.<br /> <br /> “Elinor is an intellectual leader, a brilliant and innovative scientist whose work has a huge relevance in sustainability and environmental issues,” said Sander van der Leeuw, director of the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who persuaded Ostrom to join ASU part-time in 2006.<br /> <br /> “She combines economics, anthropology, political science and decision-making in her work, and she is committed to the major issues of our society. She is the kind of transdisciplinary Scientist we seek at ASU. We give her the support to do the work for which she is gifted.” Ostrom, a political economist, was honored for her work showing how ordinary people can create their own regulations to govern common resources, such as forests, fisheries and lakes—and that they are often successful.<br /> <br /> She challenged the presumption that common pool resources are always mismanaged. For instance, she found that farmers in Nepal who worked together to build primitive irrigation systems were more successful than those who used more sophisticated, agency-built systems. The key was communication, trust and reciprocity.<br /> <br /> She also applied her research to the study of police agencies across the country, and her data showed that small, community-based police departments are often more effective than large metropolitan police departments being managed in a hierarchical, top-down manner in providing direct services to citizens. In studying the Indianapolis area, for instance, she found that police officers from smaller departments had more knowledge about the area and the citizens they served, and citizens communicated more with police, than in consolidated city-wide departments. This led to better crime prevention.<br /> <br /> Ostrom became the founding director of the ASU Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, where scientists incorporate a variety of disciplines—math, anthropology, economics, political science, ecology—to determine how people’s decisions and the environment interact. The center explores sustainability, balancing conservation with development, and assessing the impact of resource use, especially “pooled” resources such as groundwater and commercial fisheries.<br /> <br /> Colleague Marco Janssen, one of her main collaborators at the center, describes her intellectual work as “Ostromology,” since it combines so many disciplines and is a unique way of looking at collective action problems.<br /> <br /> Janssen creates computerized experiments in which participants interact with models of social-ecological systems.<br /> <br /> He and Ostrom study how people adapt to and innovate in the face of environmental changes.<br /> <br /> “Elinor is wonderful to work with since she has so much experience from field studies that enables me to formulate experiments,” said Janssen. “A lot of policy-making is based on opinions instead of evidence. Elinor does good research to understand how people can solve collective action problems.<br /> <br /> She always focuses on content, is generous in providing feedback and collaboration, and is constantly innovative and explores new approaches.” ASU President Michael Crow described Ostrom’s award as “an amazing and very well-deserved honor for Elinor.” “ASU is proud to share in this great tribute,” said Crow. “It is another meaningful example of how our leading-edge faculty are earning widespread recognition for their work to address society’s biggest challenges and to educate new generations of innovative thinkers.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine:Was it difficult to find a place to do the kind of interdisciplinary research you wanted to do?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: Yes, it’s always been difficult. But ASU is at the leading edge of schools that are really pushing on the interdisciplinarity. I’m very, very excited by what they’re doing.<br /> <br /> The Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity is a sister center to the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, so we’ve had folks going back and forth between Tempe and Bloomington, which is good for us all.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: What were your challenges as a woman in academia in the 1960s and 1970s?<br /> <br /> We understand you were advised against going to graduate school.<br /> <br /> Ostrom: Yes, I was. When I was admitted to UCLA for my Ph.D. in the late ‘50s, there were four women in a class of 40, and there was a huge controversy in the faculty because they hadn’t had a woman faculty member or graduate student for multiple decades. People wondered why that committee let four of us in.<br /> <br /> They thought it would hurt the reputation of the department.<br /> Even earlier, I was advised against taking mathematics in high school.<br /> <br /> I loved geometry and got an A-plus, but I only got a B in algebra, so when I wanted to take trigonometry they said no, that women can’t take trig unless they happen to get an A-plus in both algebra and geometry. Then I couldn’t take calculus in college because you needed trig. I finally took calculus officially when I was an assistant professor at IU.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine:Was it difficult getting your first academic position?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: My husband received an offer as full professor at IU, and I came with him without a position, which was normal in the mid-‘60s.<br /> <br /> Then I had the good luck to be offered a visiting assistant professor position since they needed someone to teach political science at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and I was willing to do that. I became graduate adviser during the Vietnam War because they needed someone who had experience and age – I was in my thirties – and they appointed me on a real line.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: According to the Center for American Progress, the lack of support for raising a family continues to be a drawback for women scientists in academia.<br /> <br /> How did that affect you?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: I had a clear choice (about a family). And I made the decision not to have a family because, in earlier times, that would have been a very, very difficult thing to accomplish.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: Colleagues say you are a role model. Do you try to bring about change?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: I’ve tried to mentor women whenever I possibly could when it was related to my ongoing work, so I could help create a better future.<br /> <br /> I try to make sure that some of their Self doubts that come along because of past experiences are taken away as being big problems. I try to make sure women who are really concerned about their futures have a little more optimistic view.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: Science magazine called this year’s Nobels a possible breakthrough for women. Do you agree?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: Four women in one year, that’s pretty good. I hope that there will be many Nobel prizes in the future awarded to women who have achieved a fair amount and deserve it. We need to be looking at a wide diversity of stereotypes that we use in terms of how we treat girls and boys growing up, and recognize that gender is different, but make sure not to limit the opportunities available to women or to people who come from different backgrounds.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: Why is your work on how people handle complex urban and environmental problems, such as the proper management of public lands and resources, important?<br /> <br /> Ostrom:We’ve been very interested in how humans are able to cope with and solve very difficult problems.<br /> <br /> We hope to at least understand why people failed here and succeeded there. Down the pipe that means some possible help for the future.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: What are some examples of how ordinary people have worked together successfully to manage a common resource?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: In Los Angeles, for instance, there were over 700 pumpers taking water out of the groundwater basin.<br /> <br /> The overdraft started in the 1930s, and the war came along and nobody was worried about groundwater problems. But by 1945 they had very serious saltwater intrusion. There were 11 different cities, lots of government jurisdictions, but none had the right boundaries, so they eventually had to use national, state, and local resources as well as their own, to solve a problem. These were heads of private or public firms, who created their own (organization, the) West Basin Water Association. Solving a problem like this was immense. They struggled, worked hard, and they were successful, on many fronts.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: And more recently you studied irrigation systems in Nepal?<br /> <br /> Ostrom:We studied over 200 irrigation systems in Nepal, looking at their long-time productivity, technical efficiency and cost efficiency.<br /> <br /> They have farmer-managed primitive systems built with logs and other clay things. They also have agencybased concrete systems that are built much better than the primitive systems built by farmers. We’ve found that on all fronts, the farmermanaged systems do better than the agency-managed systems.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine:Why can citizens often do a better job managing common resources than an agency?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: It’s often because they’re trying to solve a problem of a very high order of magnitude. In Nepal it’s the question of whether they eat for the coming year, or starve. People can sometimes still fail. But if it’s important, and if they can find a way of communicating well with another, and if they can build trust and reciprocity, they sometimes can do a very good job. The presumption that humans can’t solve problems unless they happen to be government officials—that’s what our research challenges.<br /> <br /> ASU Magazine: What is a common pool resource in Phoenix?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: You’ve got the Salt River near you that’s a common pool resource. Two thousand years ago, the people who were developing that area for agriculture built all sorts of facilities that are being studied by the archaeologists at ASU. How do you get people other than government to recognize they can reduce their use of water? One of the encouraging things is the number of citizens who’ve moved to desert lawns instead of watering like mad to get things nice and green. The president of ASU has taken some wonderful stands in terms of wanting to reduce the amount of gasoline used in Phoenix in getting to campus, by using bikes and light rail. I’m very laudatory of that effort.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: What happens when people don’t manage a common resource properly?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: There have been a lot of disastrous outcomes, particularly in fisheries throughout the world.<br /> <br /> In one sardine fishery off the coast of California, they used up the fish in the 1980s. They’re gone. There are some fisheries that are quite successful, like the lobster fishery in Maine. But it takes a lot of time and effort by the people involved to get themselves organized and agree on the strategies that involve short-term reduction in harvesting but long-term increase in sustainability.<br /> <br /> ASUMagazine: How did you become interested in your field of expertise?<br /> <br /> Ostrom: I was very interested in howpeople solve problems. I've studied government, but I was particularly interested in how citizens and users of resources solve problems and not just government. My dissertation on groundwater got me started, and then in working on policing in metropolitan areas we found a large number of smaller communities that were able to have police departments that were very effective. Yet the literature said we had to consolidate all the police departments. We’ve let people take small units away from us. A lot of literature on government stresses hierarchy, top down, and I’ve never been too impressed with that.<br /> <br />

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