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USU speaker explores ecological decision-making and the power of collaboration

Dense rain forest trees
Samuel M Beebe, Ecotrust

Zhao Ma is a professor of Natural Resource Social Science at Purdue University. Her work is centered at the crossroads of ecological and social change. At her seminars this week, she explored invasive plant management, adaptation to climate change, and how social norms shape ecological decision-making.

Ma also shared new research examining whether conditional cash transfer programs, which pay participants to perform actions if they meet certain criteria, are effective conservation tools.

“A big debate is about whether or not these payments are crowding in or crowding out people's intrinsic motivation for conservation, right? Because, you know, economists very often think if you don't pay people, people are not going to do the right thing,” Ma said.

Interestingly, she and her collaborators found that landowners in Bolivia were just as likely to conserve forested areas on their properties whether they were paid based on their compliance with certain criteria or whether they were paid unconditionally. They also found landowners were still likely to comply with the program even if they weren’t checked up on.

“There’s some research from our own group showing, even without very stringent conditionality monitoring compliance checks, the compliance rate is actually pretty high,” Ma explained. “We actually found that conditionality was viewed by some people as a way to connect with local community members, to show care, to provide help, to reinforce trust and reciprocity, as well as to ensure accountability.”

Ma stressed the importance of collaboration in science, especially in the context of complicated ecological issues.

“Nobody, in my opinion, has all the scientific training, the background, the skills to really address very complex environmental problems,” Ma said.

The Ecology Center will be holding their next seminars on October 11th and 12th. Learn more at

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.