Nobel Women

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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Elinor Ostrom, First Woman to Win the Nobel Prize in Economics

August 07, 2010
by Haley A. Lovett
Elinor Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her against-the-grain studies of how self-imposed regulation of common resources can be more efficient than government regulation.

Elinor Ostrom’s Early Days

Elinor Ostrom was born on Aug. 7, 1933. In 1965, she received her doctorate in political science from UCLA. In 1973, along with her husband, Ostrom cofounded The Workshop in Political Theory and Public Policy at Indiana University.

Ostrom’s Nobel Prize-Winning Work

For decades, the accepted thought among many economists was that self-imposed regulations among a group would not work because one member of the group was destined to break the rules. Ostrom’s studies at Indiana University looked at examples of successful group management of common goods. She found examples where groups of lobster fishermen in Maine were able to successfully develop rules to prevent overfishing, and where farmers successfully implemented irrigation systems amongst themselves. 

Ostrom has found that in many cases, self-regulation of common goods worked better than would have been expected based on existing economic and social theories. In other words, she found that people are better able to self-regulate than was previously thought. It was for this work that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, making her the first woman to win this prize.

Ostrom has received many other honors and awards for her work in economics and the social sciences, including the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 1999, the James Madison Award by the American Political Science Association in 2005, and the William H. Riker Prize in Political Science in 2008.

The Rest of the Story

Ostrom’s research may change the way that conservationists look to save species and resources from extinction. Ostrom believes that conservation efforts often fail because they are too strict and don’t allow for flexibility to meet local customs, as in the case of some whale species.

According to a 2007 ScienceDaily article, Ostrom proposes that policymakers look at how local people use common resources before they develop policy, and then provide ways to work with people to help conserve those resources. "Resource management is just as complex as the human body,” Ostrom was quoted as saying. “It needs to be approached differently in different situations."

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