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Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom dies

In an Oct. 12, 2009 file photo Elinor

In an Oct. 12, 2009 file photo Elinor Ostrom poses for a portrait in Bloomington, Indiana, after becoming the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in economics. A university spokesman said Ostrom died from cancer Tuesday, June 12, 2012 at a Bloomington hospital. She was 78. Credit: AP

Elinor Ostrom, a globe-trotting professor who in 2009 became the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in economics, died June 12 at a hospital in Bloomington, Ind. She was 78 and had cancer.

Her death was announced by Indiana University, where Ostrom had taught and worked for more than four decades in relative obscurity until the Nobel Prize catapulted her to fame.

When Ostrom came forward as the recipient of the world's most prestigious award in economics, many scholars were caught unaware -- and not only because the so-called dismal science had long been dominated by men. Never trained as an economist, Ostrom was technically a political scientist.

But even that label inadequately described the elaborate anthropological fieldwork she pursued. Beginning in the 1960s, Ostrom traipsed across the Los Angeles water basin and the American Midwest, through Swiss pastures and into the villages of Nepal to gather evidence for a theory that few of her contemporaries believed.

In essence, Ostrom contended that individuals and communities could effectively manage their own collective resources -- such as fisheries, forests and water supplies -- without the intrusion of government regulation or private industry.

"What we have ignored," she said after her Nobel Prize was announced, "is what citizens can do . . . as opposed to just having someone in Washington or at a far, far distance make a rule."

For much of Ostrom's career, many economists were deeply influenced by the principle of the "tragedy of the commons." Named for the overgrazing of pastures during the 1800s, the parable suggests that individuals acting in self-interest will ultimately deplete a resource -- such as a pasture -- that is open to everyone.

Scholars used the parable to demonstrate the need for government regulation or control by private industry. Ostrom disputed this, pointing to empirical evidence she had gathered around the world to prove that local knowledge, cooperation and enlightened self-interest could be more effective than regulatory leviathans.

Ostrom wrote about the community collaboration in Los Angeles in the 1960s to prevent seawater from seeping into the city's freshwater supply. In Nepal, she found that villagers' rudimentary irrigation systems worked more effectively than high-tech government river dams. The dams, she noted, had made neighborly communication obsolete.

She called upon history, studying 1920s quota agreements among fishermen in Maine, and applied her theories to disciplines outside of ecology. In the Midwest and across the United States in the 1970s and '80s, she found that small local police departments were more effective than lumbering metropolitan forces.

Some economists objected to Ostrom's Nobel recognition, categorizing her research as social science and not pure economics. Other critics suggested that the award betrayed an overly politically correct, anti-market message from Nobel officials in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Two months before her death, Time magazine named Ostrom one of the 100 most influential people in the world for her research illuminating how human society might better coexist with nature.

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