UPDATE, May 25: Lin Ostrom's talk at U.Va. has been cancelled. No new date has been scheduled.
May 24, 2012 — How can economics help make the world a better place? Elinor "Lin" Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics and recently named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, has a few ideas.
Ostrom, the only female Nobel laureate in economics, will speak May 31 at 4 p.m. at the University of Virginia's Monroe Hall, room 130. Her talk, "Learning from Experiments and the Field About Institutions," concludes the 2011-12 speakers series of the College of Arts & Sciences' Quantitative Collaborative.
Ostrom, the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, also holds a research professorship at Arizona State University at Tempe and is the founding director of ASU's Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity. The author of seven books and countless research papers, she is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Karen Parshall, associate dean for the social sciences, said Ostrom's work exemplifies the high level of collaboration within the quantitative social sciences that the Quantitative Collaborative hopes to foster at U.Va., along with a high degree of interdisciplinarity. A political scientist, Ostrom applies economic theory to geopolitical settings.
Her work centers on the idea of "collective action problems" surrounding common-pool resources, also known as the "Tragedy of the Commons." David Leblang, chair of U.Va.'s Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics, explained that common-pool resources can be anything from fish or forests to highways or the electromagnetic spectrum – things that no one owns, but that everybody has an incentive to use as much as possible. "When everybody uses as much as they can, the result is disastrous," he said.
Ostrom, using mathematical models to understand social phenomena, is attempting to theorize "incentive-compatible" mechanisms that give individuals an incentive to preserve a common resource, Leblang explained. This differs from the concept of government sanctions; by creating a mechanism that's in everybody's best interest and assures each individual that everyone else is also cooperating, responsible resource use will occur without the need for government enforcement.
Ostrom's research can help solve critical problems facing the governance of environmental resources such as water, air and public lands, but her theories apply to many aspects of life. Charles Holt, chair of U.Va.'s Department of Economics, said the work of Ostrom and her colleagues at Indiana University's Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis "has given us a broad, interdisciplinary understanding of how people interact with ecosystems as they work to maintain long-term, sustainable resources."
Leblang, who has known Ostrom for some time and served with her on American Political Science Association committees, said he is eager to hear about her latest research.
"It's going to be exciting to hear her talk about how winning the prize has enabled her to share her research and what she has discovered with a larger and more diverse population," Leblang said.
In the past, the Quantitative Collaborative has brought in lecturers such as Leonard Wantchekon, professor of politics and economics at New York University; Mick Couper, research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan; and Myron Gutmann, assistant director of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences program at the National Science Foundation and research professor at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. The series has also featured U.Va. administrators and faculty members, including President Teresa A. Sullivan, who kicked off the series last year, economics professor Maxim Engers and Leblang.
Ostrom's visit has something to offer both academics involved in quantitative social science research and anyone interested in learning more about the major problems facing the world today and ways to fix them, Parshall said.
"Ostrom's visit presents an amazing opportunity for our faculty and students to interact with one of the premier social scientists in the United States," she said. "It's just not every day that we get to hear about the latest research of a Nobel laureate from the laureate herself."
A reception and refreshments will follow Ostrom's talk, which is free and open to the public. Parking is available in the Central Grounds Garage. For information, call Parshall at 434-924-3389.
– by Kate Colwell