Monday, October 12, 2009

The ripple effect of a Nobel in Economics

Tracy Yandle was vacationing in the Smoky Mountains when Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics. “I had the radio on in the cabin, and when I heard the news I went outside and started jumping up and down,” says Yandle, associate professor in environmental studies. “Intellectually, and personally, it’s just a wonderful thing to me.”

Ostrom, a leading scholar of how communities can effectively regulate common resources, was Yandle’s dissertation advisor at Indiana University. Yandle focused on the market forces of fisheries in New Zealand – one of the only systems in the world that had privatized to allow fishermen to buy and sell the rights to catch a certain amount.

After she began her research, in 1999, the fishermen started using their fishing rights as leverage. “They realized, ‘If we have catching rights, we own a part of the fishery and we want a say in it,’” Yandle recalls.

In a panic, Yandle called Ostrom to report: “I’m doomed, the entire system is changing. It’s not a market system anymore.”

Ostrom advised her to go with the flow. “She said, ‘This is exciting, a self-governing organization is forming before your eyes,’” Yandle says. “She helped me to see that clearly, and to figure out a way to study it.”

After joining Emory in 2001, Yandle continued to dig deeper into this new angle of research. She is currently studying the quantity and quality of property rights required to get people involved in managing a natural resource.

Ostrom “is a wonderful example of an interdisciplinary thinker,” Yandle says. “She’s one of the key people in forming natural resource economics, through her work at the boundaries of economics, political science and organizational thinking."

The Nobel laureate’s mentees in the Emory environmental studies department also include Lore Ruttan, who was a post-doctoral fellow under Ostrom.

In his NYT column, John Tierney describes Elinor Ostrom's work disputing "the tragedy of the commons" theory.

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