Oct. 22, 2009
Her theories on economic governance and common property earned Elinor Ostrom a share of this year's Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences. But since 2006, a major initiative she founded to grow and share applications of her research has been housed at the School of Natural Resources and Environment
Professor Ostrom, who received an honorary degree from U-M in 2006, started the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) research network in the early 1990s. Its focus then, as now, was on collecting and analyzing data at local levels related to forest governance.
In 2004, she sought a new academic home for IFRI, then housed at Indiana University, Bloomington, as she transitioned her research agenda. The University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment offered to house the institute and her pioneering research. The choice was a natural one, in part because SNRE Associate Dean Arun Agrawal  attended the institute's founding meeting in 1991 as a doctoral student, conducted its first commissioned research and has been involved with the IFRI network since then.
"Her work seeks to understand how human beings can self organize to undertake tasks together without being forced by the government or acting in markets," said Professor Agrawal, IFRI's first and only director at U-M. "IFRI is the longest lasting of her research projects that focuses on broad theoretical issues."
In the 17 years since its founding, IFRE has evolved its focus. Its original emphases on understanding the forces that lead to deforestation and loss of biodiversity remain. But recently, its research-analysis work has expanded to include a focus on how conservation also affects carbon sequestration and climate change.
Professor Ostrom addresses that theme herself in a new paper commissioned by the World Bank for its World Development Report 2010 . The report focused on climate change and development and was co-authored by SNRE Dean Rosina M. Bierbaum .í‚ "Efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions are a classic collective action problem that is best addressed at multiple scales and levels," Professor Ostrom writes. "Given the slowness and conflict involved in achieving a global solution to climate change, recognizing the potential for building a more effective ways of reducing green house gas emissions at multiple levels is an important step forward."
In 2004, professors Ostrom and Agrawal began initial talks about moving IFRI to U-M. A MacArthur Foundation grant in 2006 provided money for the transition. "At that time, Elinor was thinking about reducing her travel and doing more conceptual and theoretical work. Besides, directing running IFRI requires a fair bit of travel, and she was looking to reduce that commitment," Professor Agrawal added. Professor Ostrom remains on IFRE's steering committee.
Professor Ostrom, who continues to teach at Indiana University, Bloomington, shared this year's prize with Oliver E. Williamson of the University of California at Berkeley. In selecting her on Oct. 12, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said she had challenged "the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concludes that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories. She observes that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest, and she characterizes the rules that promote successful outcomes."
She referenced her work in April 2006 when addressing SNRE graduates at the school's Spring Commencement. "We have moved from an absence of concern to an over-concern with a small number of í¢â‚¬Ëœcure-alls' posed as the optimal solutions for environmental problems. You are the generation that can go forth and start a strong diagnostic tradition among the scholars focusing on natural resources and their long-term sustainability," she told graduates. (Read her commencement address )
"We can do well when we carefully assess the multiple variables that affect the condition of an ecological system and the linked social system related to it. We can do harm if we carry with us simple solutions to complex problems and try to impose them every time there is a problem," Professor Ostrom added.
As her theories on the subject evolved, Professor Ostrom organized a meeting of like-minded researchers in 1991 through the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization.í‚ About 20 people attended, including Professor Agrawal, then a graduate student at Duke University whose own dissertation committee then included Professor Ostrom. The attendees discussed the need for a research process and umbrella organization to examine forest management, common property and the underlying models required to balance livelihoods and conservation.
IFRI was formed the following year; in 1993, Professor Agrawal went to India to conduct its first international data-collection project.
Today, IFRI carries on Professor Ostrom's work by examining how to change processes leading to deforestation; assessing the nature of trade-offs among forest conservation, livelihoods promotion and carbon sequestration; and by studying the role of institutions and policies in promoting better forest outcomes. The IFRI network comprises 14 Collaborating Research Centers in 12 countries.í‚ IFRI researchers use a common data-collection method to ensure sites can be compared across space and time. Its database contains information about forest ecology, livelihood, governance arrangements, and forest user groupsí‚ for more than 250 sites in 15 countries between 1992 and the present. Its three-person staff trains other researchers and collects original data.
About The International Forestry Resources and Institutions Research
The International Forestry Resources and Institutions Research network is a group of researchers working on forest governance and livelihoods. Its work focuses on data collection and analysis across multiple international settings at the local level, using both social and ecological data collected at several points in time. It aims to explain how institutions shape forest governance outcomes. IFRI has sponsored multiple research projects on community-based natural resource management, decentralization, and environmental governance with the help of funds from the FAO, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the NSF, the UNDP, the USAID, and the WWF. With the cooperation of its CRCs, affiliated researchers, students, and training programs, the network has collected data on nearly 1,000 variables from more than 250 sites.
About the School of Natural Resources and Environment
The School of Natural Resources and Environment's overarching objective is to contribute to the protection of the Earth's resources and the achievement of a sustainable society. Through research, teaching and outreach, faculty, staff and students are devoted to generating knowledge and developing policies, techniques and skills to help practitioners manage and conserve natural and environmental resources to meet the full range of human needs on a sustainable basis.