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Researching governance & the environment

Ostrom displayed a keen interest in environmental issues from the start of her academic career.

Lin studied water management in Southern California for her graduate research. Specifically, she studied the polycentric water governance system that had emerged in the region.

In 1945, over-drafting a groundwater basin that lay beneath western Los Angeles caused saltwater from the nearby coast to leak into basin, damaging the city’s water supply. In response, several individuals in the community came together and established a water association, implementing new measures such as new water usage rules and a water replenishment district that effectively restored the groundwater basin. Lin’s dissertation focused on such polycentric systems of governance, but her graduate work also exposed her to common pool resource problems.

In addition, Lin became very familiar with the types of problems that common pool resource users face and witnessed first-hand how they came together to create solutions. Lin’s graduate work was a prelude to her subsequent work on common pool resources (it was only after Ostrom defended her dissertation in 1965 that Garrett Hardin’s article on “The Tragedy of the Commons” was published! Fret not, we will understand these ideas better in the following weeks).

While in graduate school, Lin met and married her second husband – political scientist Vincent Ostrom – and they became academic partners in crime. In 1965, Indiana University Bloomington offered Vincent an attractive position as Full Professor. He accepted the offer on the condition that Lin was granted a faculty position, a common practice in academia where a ‘trailing spouse’ is sometimes granted a ‘courtesy appointment’. This courtesy sure did the university well. Thereafter, Lin began as a Visiting Assistant Professor teaching a 7.30am ‘Introduction to American Government’ class that nobody else would take and slowly worked her way up the academic ladder, becoming a Full Professor in 1974.

In the first 15 years of Lin’s research career at Indiana University, she focused on studying the structure and performance of police departments across the United States. The goal was to find out whether smaller police departments or larger and more centralised police departments provided better services. Her research took place amidst increasing calls for the consolidation of public services, but the results of her findings led her to conclude that polycentric systems trumped centralised bureaucracies, much against the tide of scholarly opinion at the time.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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Environmental Management: A Bottom-Up Approach to Policy Implementation

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