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10 Questions for Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Elinor Ostrom

10 Questions for Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Elinor Ostrom

Political economist Elinor Ostrom is the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics and the only UCLA alumna and former staff member ever to capture the vaunted award. Among other topics in this interview, she touches on research in Nepal in the 1970s.

By Meg Sullivan for UCLA Today

Elinor Ostrom began breaking through barriers long before she started her professional career. The Los Angeles native challenged conventional thinking in the 1950s when she enrolled at UCLA despite her mother’s misgivings about women in college. When Ostrom graduated in 1954 with a B.A. in political science with only $8 in her bank account, she became an assistant personnel manager in Boston before she returned to UCLA as a full-time staff member in human resources. It took only one graduate course for Ostrom to jump back into academics, earning an M.A. and Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of Political Science.

It was her doctoral research in analyzing the political economy of West Basin — a groundwater basin serving Southern California — that led to her study of common pool resources. She challenged traditional market-based views of economics and argued that, in some cases, smaller local groups can actually do a better job of preserving and protecting common resources than larger government agencies. For her groundbreaking work, she shared the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with Oliver E. Williamson. She is currently the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at Indiana University in Bloomington.

In this edited interview, Meg Sullivan of the UCLA Newsroom/UCLA Today talked to Ostrom about the path she took that led to the Nobel Prize and the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor, which she accepted on March 29 at the College of Letters and Science Awards Dinner.

Andriana Trang

What was it like to be a woman in your field when you started in the '50s and '60s?

Oh, very difficult. People strongly advised me against it. My mother didn't want me to go to college — [she] saw no reason whatsoever to do that. And then getting my first job after my baccalaureate was a challenge. Getting into graduate school was also a big challenge. The '50s and '60s were not very good for academic women, or women in business or other fields. But things have changed quite a bit. Thank goodness!

Did growing up poor have an impact on the research agenda you chose?

No, not specifically, but … if you are born poor, you really have to figure out how to make things work on a very limited budget. You do have some empathy for people who are themselves poor, and you understand the struggle they have. I was born in 1933, and so my early impressions are entirely of the Depression.

Can you explain your research in layman's terms?

The term "common pool resources" is not something that most people have in their everyday language, so let me explain. It’s any kind of resource that’s bigger than a family backyard pool where it's difficult to keep people out — [because doing so is] costly. Anyone who enters may subtract something. So a fishery is pretty obvious. Sometimes it's difficult to figure out who can enter and what the boundaries are, but if I take fish out, that fish isn't available to anyone else. That would be a common pool resource.

When I started studying it, I didn't know that. I started studying groundwater basins in Southern California. I focused on West Basin, located south of Los Angeles International Airport. There were a very large number of water pumpers pumping out ground water in the basin. So the groundwater basin was going down, down, down. That made it very dangerous for them, and it took quite a bit of ingenuity and entrepreneurship to use a variety of methods to solve it, which they did.

What’s happened to these groundwater basins?

There are several groundwater basins in Southern California that have really done quite well. One of my doctoral students just completed a study so now we have 60 years of data that range from the '50s to the present. West Basin not only has reduced the amount of saltwater going in, but it has actually raised the level of water in the basin. Among the groundwater basins in the U.S., it is one of the rare ones that's really been a success. But the water pumpers created a special district. They put a very heavy tax on themselves, so for every acre-foot of water they pumped up, they paid a tax. But the tax goes to the district, not up to Sacramento or Washington, D.C. So they can use that tax for replenishment. And they’ve been very successful.

Do you have now a central idea for how a commons should be managed?

I don't. But I do have the sense that we've had oversimplified versions of the problem. Garrett Hardin wrote a very famous article in Science in 1968 on the "tragedy of the commons." If people were using a commons, he said, they were helpless. They would be led to overharvest repeatedly, and they wouldn't do anything about it. You needed external authorities to come in, according to Hardin.

Well, I'd already studied something where locals had done a great deal for themselves. They did draw on a larger-scale facility, but did not say, "We're helpless. You come in and you figure it out." They helped solve it. It's entirely different from just being helpless. Now we've studied it over time, and it's succeeded. That does not mean that if locals are given the authority to solve problems, they always will. Because they can fail too.

Are there other examples where people who have solved these kinds of problems themselves?

There are. Since water resources have been a fairly large focus in my work, as well as forestry and other commons, I was asked to go to Nepal in the early '70s to analyze their recent decentralization act, which was not very successful, and of some of the water policies and water capabilities of farmers.

I began a study with Nepali colleagues and found that Nepali farmers had built a very well-performing irrigation system, even though, by external standards, it was primitive. They were mud and brick – they didn't have fancy engineering. But now we've done a study of over 250 of them. In comparing farmer-managed systems to the very expensive agency-managed ones, funded by the Asian Development Bank with other development assistance, the farmer-managed systems were able to outperform them, even though millions had been spent on the other systems.

As a result, the farmers at the tail end get more water, they are able to grow more rice, and these systems are more efficient to run. It's rather amazing. We're just now doing a book that will come out next year that will look at one of the districts in Nepal where an experimental program was started two decades ago.

Were there any UCLA faculty members who helped you or were especially influential?

Dwaine Marvick was my chair, and I will always be appreciative of his advice. Then there was a group of political economists who were very actively working together. Charlie Tiebout was in the economics department, but participated in that group. He and Vincent Ostrom (whom Elinor later married), whom I met in graduate school but was not on my dissertation committee, wrote a very key article in 1961 on polycentric arrangements for metropolitan governance. We also had a working group with Bob Warren, Lou Wishler and a number of advanced graduate students who were trying to understand why metropolitan areas that were consolidated did not do as well as similar areas that had found ways for large, medium and small units to work together.

The faculty worked across disciplines very well, so there was a friendly environment. On my dissertation committee, I had political scientists, economists, sociologists, a water engineer and a geologist. That was all part of the program here. My work was then, and has always been, interdisciplinary. Some universities don’t get students started on thinking in an interdisciplinary way, so that’s one of the strengths of UCLA. 

In what way did UCLA influence who you are today?

I could not have moved into the profession of political economy without having both an undergraduate and graduate [degree at UCLA]. When I started college in the '50s, the semester fee at UCLA was very low. I could work my way through my entire undergraduate years. Fortunately, I was able to teach swimming during the summer so I earned a fair amount of money that way. But I literally left college with $8 in the bank. Kids today cannot do that, but I did have to work 30-35 hours a week during the regular semester. Many poor students were going to UCLA and not to USC [laughs].

I did have some very good courses in economics and in public administration as well as in political science. So I had a good foundation. I then went into business for several years and did not go into academics until after I returned to UCLA as a full-time staffer in the personnel department. Then I decided to take courses in public administration and found that the master’s classes were really interesting. I decided to go for a Ph. D. at that point.

Given that you’re the first woman to get a Nobel Prize in economics, what advice do you have for young women interested in being academics?

My advice to young women thinking about an academic career is to pick an area they’re really excited about. It’s most important that students pick questions they find fascinating, because you’re going to spend night and day on those same questions for years. If you’re not really interested, and it doesn’t fascinate you, then it’s nothing but work, work, work. And while I’ve worked seven days a week for a long time, I didn’t really think of it as work. I’m intrigued. I’m interested.

What’s it like to be a Nobel Laureate? Has it changed your life?

I’m not sure I have a life (laughs). It is a very great honor, and I’m deeply appreciative. On the other hand, I am getting requests of a vast magnitude every day. I can’t possibly accept them all; people want me to travel to a variety of places. I’m not able to accept anymore invitations for 2011 and the first six months of 2012. None. And I’m fairly intensely scheduled. I just can’t do everything people want me to do.

I’m still actively doing research on several counts so I’m trying to find time when I can be working on my own papers and meeting with my research teams. It’s difficult. I have great colleagues so they’re taking a big burden.

Ostrom is featured this week in a video by the UCLA Broadcast Studio.

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