Lee Alston earned his B.A. in economics with honors and distinction from Indiana University (IU) in 1973. He went on to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1975 and 1978, respectively. In August 2014, he began his professional career at IU when he was appointed as the director of the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. He retired from IU in 2022 with the title Professor Emeritus of Economics.
Before joining the IU faculty, Alston worked as a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. At the University of Colorado, he also served as director of the Program on Institutions in the Institute of Behavioral Science, as co-director of the institute's Center on the Governance of Natural Resources, and as a faculty associate and former director of the Program on Environment and Society. Before joining the faculty at Colorado, Alston was a member of the economics faculty at Williams College and a professor of economics and political science at the University of Illinois.
Alston's research interests focus on the important roles of institutions, beliefs, and contracts in shaping economic and political outcomes in multiple domains. His prior areas of research include the governance and use of natural resources historically and today; the growth of the U.S. welfare system in the U.S. in the 1960s; and the historical trajectory of Brazil from 1964 to the present. The author or co-author of seven books and more than 70 articles, he has been a research associate at the National Bureau for Economic Research since 1995 and is a former president of the International Society for the New Institutional Economics.