Researchers Study Incentive-Based Environmental Conservation Programs

Maria-Lapinski-Tibet-mainA team of MSU researchers, lead by Maria Lapinski, College of Communication Arts & Sciences' Associate Dean for Research, recently traveled to the Tibetan plateau. The focus of the research team is to study the effects of short-term financial incentives on the social norms of two kinds of behaviors: poaching patrols for protecting large mammals, including the snow leopard, and modifying grazing patterns to protect the grasslands for species conservation and water quality.

The interdisciplinary research seeks to provide new information and insights to help make the next generation of incentive-based environmental conservation programs more effective.

"The ultimate goal is to look for ways to make these programs more successful," Lapinski said.

Besides Lapinski, the research team includes Jinhua Zhao, Professor of Economics and Director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program, and John Kerr, Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability.

The project is supported by a three-year, $600,700 grant through the National Science Foundation Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (IBSS) competition.

In many countries, there is a movement towards incentive-based programs to promote environmental conservation, vaccination, school attendance and other socially desirable behaviors. However, most of these incentive-based programs are government or donor funded, with budgets subject to political processes and availability of funds. That makes them vulnerable to elimination and raises the question of what happens when the incentives stop.

Basing their work in Sanjiangyuan, a Chinese region in southern Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau, the researchers are trying to answer that question and to better understand the linkages among communication, monetary incentives, social norms and behaviors.

Sanjiangyuan was selected as the study region because of the strong existing conservation ethic among the Tibetan people and the potential introduction of a large-scale payment-for-ecosystem-services program.

The research team is using interviews and surveys, and conducting a series of field experiments as part of the study, which began in October.

In the end, they team hopes to improve societal understanding of how financial incentives and social norms interact to influence behavior. By offering possible policy modifications and a better understanding of their effects, the research could help improve the design of incentive-based environmental conservation programs.

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