Political scientist Neil O’Brian is named 2024 Carnegie Fellow

Neil O’Brian was stunned when he opened an email from the Carnegie Corporation and read that he is a 2024 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. 

“I just sort of sat there in disbelief,” said O’Brian, a University of Oregon assistant professor of political science In the College of Arts and Sciences. “I thought they had made a mistake.”

Well, let there be no mistake. O’Brian is among 28 academics and researchers across the United States to receive the prestigious honor, which comes with a $200,000 grant.

He plans to use the funds to further explore and expand what he’s calling his “doctor’s project.”

Through initial research, O’Brian identified a partisan divide in the trust people have in their doctors. Those on the political right expressed less trust in their doctors than those on the left.

That hasn’t always been the case. The data showed no difference in trust in one’s personal doctor between those identifying as Republicans and those identifying as Democrats until a shift in 2020-21, during the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

O’Brian argues the partisan divides over masking, vaccines and other COVID public health precautions led to less trust in medicine overall, including less trust in health care providers. 

He wants to conduct larger surveys to confirm his findings and to dig even deeper to see if distrust in one’s doctor is linked to worse health outcomes.

If so, he asks, could political affiliation join other “social determinants of health,” such as income, housing and education, as predictors of a person’s overall health?

The timing of the Carnegie opportunity was fortuitous, O’Brian said, because he had just wrapped up a book project over the summer.

His book, “The Roots of Polarization: From the Racial Realignment to the Culture Wars, will be released in August by the University of Chicago Press. 

“The book’s premise,” he said, “is if you look at public opinion going back to the 1930s, people who are more conservative on race also are more conservative on issues like guns, abortion and immigration. This mattered because when these issues worked their way into the party system, the parties’ newly formed positions on civil rights in the 1960s shaped their positioning on these other issues, too.” 

O’Brian had started studying political affiliation and trust in doctors when the Carnegie Fellows application nudged him to think about other directions for his project.

O’Brian is only the second UO researcher to be named a Carnegie Fellow. UO political scientist Daniel Tichenor received the award in 2015. Since then, only four Oregonians have been selected.

The Carnegie Corporation named O’Brian and the other members of the 2024 class of Carnegie Fellows in a full-page announcement in The New York Times

"This is a huge honor,” Tichenor said. “The Carnegie Fellowship is one of the most significant awards given to scholars in the humanities and social sciences. It is a major boost for your research program, and humbling recognition from leading scholars and experts about the quality and impact of your work.

"In a year when Carnegie Fellows are being challenged to study the impact of political polarization, Neil's work offers powerful answers,” Tichenor said. “He already has written a brilliant book on the roots of our partisan divides on issues like abortion, immigration and gun control. Neil's next project provocatively investigates the health implications of our ideological and partisan differences. Few scholars are doing work in this area as important and path-breaking as Neil." 

O’Brian plans to begin the fellowship this summer, and it will end in summer 2026. His students will be happy to hear that he intends to continue to teach during the fellowship.

O’Brian earned his doctorate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley, where he says his advisors provided him with the freedom and support to pursue his own research questions. He offers this advice to graduate students:

 “Find research questions that interest you, and fuel you, and push you to always do better.”

  —By Sherri Buri McDonald, University Communications