What happens when a PI dies?

I always joke to summer students and rotating grad students:

Your lab notebook. Keep it up to date. If you get hit by a bus tomorrow, I expect to be able to pick up exactly where you left off.

Heart attacks happen. Car accidents happen. Random acts of violence happen. But we stand on each others shoulders in science. We build upon the hard work of others, and expect others to build upon our work. So you have to plan for crazy shit (like getting hit by a bus) so all of your hard work isnt lost forever and everyone else is screwed.

Well, the news just reported that Senator Kennedys seizure was caused by a malignant glioma (a kind of brain cancer) reminding me of a scary incident a couple years ago. A collaborator, a principle investigator at a different university, had a seizure and went into a coma for a while. His physicians finally figured out it was brain cancer.

While of course we were worried about him, we were also worried about his research, his graduate students, and the status of our collaboration. This fellow was the primary PI on our grant. If he died, where would his grad students go (grad students tuition, etc is normally paid for by the PIs grants)? Who would take over his research? You cant win a grant and say “Wait, I dont want it. Im gonna give it to Steve down the hall”, and you cant just say “Well, Jims dead. Might as well give the money to Susan.” Should we continue with our experiments? Should we go ahead and submit another grant we were working on together?

The questions went on and on… I was very glad I wasnt Bossman… But I had to wonder what I would do if I were him. Or what would happen to me if Bossman got hit by a bus or got brain cancer.

Does the NIH have some sort of protocol for what to do when a PI dies? Do they just take the grant back and recycle it into a different award? Do they try to transfer it to someone else at the Uni who can do similar work?

Hell, screw the money, what happens to the ideas?? Thats what horrified me during our scare– We were helping this fellow with a really friggen cool idea. We were just ‘helping’. We couldnt run this whole thing on our own, it wasnt/isnt our area of expertise. But it could lead to a therapy that could help a LOT of people. What would happen to that cool idea if our collaborator died??

Im happy to say that I never had to find out the answers to these questions. Our collaborator is doing just fine! Had surgery and is back on the bench, full of piss and vinegar like he always was. Sure he is lucky, but we, humanity, is lucky too.

But we cant depend on luck to save science from freak accidents!

Whats the protocol for this?

Anybody know?

I want a friggen flow chart!


  1. #1 James F
    May 20, 2008


    When Don Wiley died, his students basically went over to Steve Harrison’s lab to finish their projects. It was a case where another crystallographer and close collaborator was already on the faculty (indeed, the two groups already shared the same floor). I’m not sure how grant money was reassigned, but for student support, at least, I imagine that it was a matter of switching the designated advisor.

  2. #2 Orac
    May 20, 2008

    Does the NIH have some sort of protocol for what to do when a PI dies? Do they just take the grant back and recycle it into a different award? Do they try to transfer it to someone else at the Uni who can do similar work?

    NIH grants are given to the institution, not the PI. (The NIH emphasized this to us new investigators at a new investigators’ conference I attended after I got my first R01.) It’s a custom more than anything else that institutions relinquish grants when a PI leaves to take another job, thus allowing the PI to take the grant with him or her; institutions don’t have to do that, but they know that if they didn’t they’d never get any decent funded investigators to work for them. The bottom line: If a PI can no longer continue to be PI on a grant, the institution can either assign it to another PI or, if no person with the necessary expertise exists at the institution, the institution has to relinquish the remaining funds to the NIH.

  3. #3 factician
    May 20, 2008

    It’s actually relatively common. The longer you’re around, you’re virtually guaranteed to see it several times.

    Sometimes senior post-docs get to run the lab, sometimes the lab folds and folks move around. I know someone who used it as a launching point to start a career (PI died, she became PI, she got more grants, now she is successful PI).

  4. #4 Darkling
    May 20, 2008

    Making sure that the reasons for all the little decisions are documented is really important for situations just like this. The PI of a lab where a friend of mine had completed her MSc got very sick and then died. Fortunately the post-docs in the lab were able to step up and support the remaining students there (it was a large lab) and some of the other faculty in the dept were also former students of the PI as well. I think they were able to continue to work on all of the grants that they had.

  5. #5 efrique
    May 20, 2008

    You mean a flowchart like this?

    (Gee, I hope the formatting works, or it’s gonna look like crap.)

    |You’re screwed|<—
    |______________|    |
        |                       |
        |                       |

  6. #7 Confused
    May 21, 2008

    D’oh, scanning the comments for a link to Oracs article, I actually missed Oracs reply. Still to early in the morning for me. >_<

  7. #8 Sigmund
    May 21, 2008

    Well, if the PI was a good Christian he, or she, goes straight to heaven.
    Otherwise they’re off to the land of eternal red hot pokers up the Dembski, just like all you Godless heathens!

  8. #9 Jake
    May 21, 2008

    Here at my institution, when a PI dies all of his ideas and grad students get entombed with them.

    This insures an eternity of fruitful research, allowing the PI to continue publishing in high impact-factor afterlife journals (J. Undead Chem., Proc. Valhalla Acad. Sci., etc.)

  9. #10 Nick
    May 21, 2008

    Oh jeez… that makes me want to go update my lab notebook.

  10. #11 chancelikely
    May 21, 2008

    Jake (#9): Now all we have to do is convince the ID movement to take up that tradition. Who knows, maybe they’ll get a testable prediction out of it.

  11. #12 I.P. Freeley
    May 21, 2008

    This just makes me think of a bunch of grad students trying to pull off a “Weekend at Bernie’s” when some suit comes by to inspect the lab.

  12. #13 DrugMonkey
    May 21, 2008

    You cant win a grant and say “Wait, I dont want it. Im gonna give it to Steve down the hall”, and you cant just say “Well, Jims dead. Might as well give the money to Susan.”

    damn, Orac beat me. Grants are awarded to Institutions.

    I’ve seen PI switches tons of times. If you know someone who died and want proof of how this works, you can sometimes figure this out by CRISP searching.

    In the more pedestrian sense, you might notice a few cases of an award on yr 20 or something where you know for sure the PI is just too young. Track back and you’ll find a PI switch at some point.

    I know a person or two who have gotten launched with a PI switch situation.

    I had a few oblique comments on why it is important for transitioning scientists to keep aware of the possibilities for advancement that arise from this understanding of who is awarded the grant.



  13. #14 trrll
    May 21, 2008

    Most institutions will try to find somebody to carry the grant through if it is at all possible, because if they give it back to NIH they lose all of the indirect costs. NIH will let them keep it if they make any kind of reasonable case that they are able to do so. The fate of graduate students when a PI dies or takes another job (and can’t or won’t bring his students) is highly variable. The best case is if the student is well along, within sight of the point at which she can start writing her thesis. In that case, somebody else, perhaps somebody on your Dissertation Advisory Committee (you do have one, I hope?) will step into your advisor’s shoes. I know of one case in which a student’s advisor died of a brain tumor while she was writing her thesis. It was not a good thing, but a substitute was found and the thesis was awarded.

    The worst case is when you’ve put in a year or two in the lab, are just barely getting an idea of where your research is going, and your advisor suddenly dies, there is really nobody else with the competence to properly supervise completion of the project, and his grant is running out anyway. In this case, you usually end up starting over with another advisor and a fresh project, and you are pretty much back to square one.

    As for the ideas, once your advisor dies, they are up for grabs. It is, after all, only professional courtesy that stops us (well, most of us) from stealing good ideas from our living colleagues. And most scientists would rather have somebody pursue their ideas after they are gone than have them be forgotten. But from the standpoint of a graduate student, the problem is finding somebody else who will support you to do so. Most PI’s have their own ideas, and their funding is earmarked for what they’ve proposed in their own grants, so they cannot easily pick up an orphaned project brought to them by a graduate student.

  14. #15 mcmillan
    May 22, 2008

    I had the same though Nick.

  15. #16 Sili
    May 25, 2008

    I guess it’s no surprise I didn’t last in the uni world.

    I could hardly read my notes, myself

New comments have been disabled.