In Nobel First, Economics Prize Goes To Woman

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, speaks to host Michele Norris. Ostrom, a 76-year-old professor of political science at Indiana University, shares the $1.4 million prize with another American — Oliver Williamson of the University of California, Berkeley — for their work on economic governance. Ostrum was cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for her research into how natural resources or "common property can be successfully managed by user associations."

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We learned today that America is in the Nobel spotlight again. Elinor Ostrom of Indiana University and Oliver E. Williamson of the University of California, Berkley, were awarded the 2009 Nobel Economics Prize for their work on economic governance. Williamson is 77, Ostrom is 76 and the two will share the honor and approximately $1.4 million that comes with the prize. Elinor Ostrom has another special designation. She's the first woman to win the Nobel in economics and she joins us now from Bloomington, Indiana. Welcome to the program and congratulations.

Professor ELINOR OSTROM (Political Science, Indiana University): Thank you very, very much. I appreciate it.

NORRIS: How did you get the news? Were you woken up early this morning?

Prof. OSTROM: I woke up at 6:30 in the morning. They'd phoned me direct and woke me up and gave me this wonderful news I deeply appreciated. And I was very surprised.

NORRIS: And that's a kind of wake up call that you'll like to get.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. OSTROM: Yes.

NORRIS: Now, I want you to do something for us and help us understand, what it is that you do. I understand that you're actually a political scientist but your work is in an area called, common resources - oil fields, grazing lands, forests and fisheries. And you found that these common resources are best managed by the people who used them as opposed to private companies or even the government. Now, I know it's tough for the average person to understand economic theory but I'm hoping that you can explain why this is the case.

Prof. OSTROM: Well, we don't have a universal that all governments are bad. Please don't let that become the assumption. The universal is that rules that are worked out that fit a local forest or fishery or lake or irrigation system are the ones that work the best when they are designed to fit a particular ecology. Where rules don't work is when we try to have all of the fisheries along the entire East Coast with the same rule, because the fisheries from Florida are dramatically different than the fisheries in Maine. So, it's that we have to be thinking about a match between the kind of rules that people are using and the ecology involved.

NORRIS: This is a big year for women. You're the fifth woman to win a Nobel prize this year and that, as I understand, is a record. But you are also the first woman, as we said, to win the Economics Prize. I'm wondering if women through all these field were whooping and hollering on you behalf?

Prof. OSTROM: I hope so because I would be whooping and hollering for the other women who won this prize.

NORRIS: What does it say about the participation of women in the field in economics, that it's taken this long for a woman to actually take the prize?

Prof. OSTROM: Well, I think in many of the sciences, especially the social sciences, it has been only recently that women were full professors, getting grants, doing research. That doesn't say anything about their abilities. It's whether the opportunities were there. And now, slowly but surely, opportunities are made available and women are doing great.

NORRIS: In advance of my conversation with yours, looking at a study that looked at the under representation of women in economics and it found that there was a lack of women entering this field because of a lack of female role models. Is this a real opportunity to help bring women into this field?

Prof. OSTROM: Great, yes. And partly we need to be training women earlier. When I was in high school, I took algebra and geometry and I wanted to take trigonometry. And they wouldn't let me because I was a woman.

NORRIS: Oh, you have a thing or two to say to anyone who said that to you, now, don't you?

Prof. OSTROM: Yes.

NORRIS: Elinor Ostrom is a political science professor at Indiana University. She and Oliver Williamson of UC Berkley are this year's winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics. Congratulations again, Professor Ostrom, and thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. OSTROM: Thank you very much.

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