ERV asks: What happens when a PI dies?

ERV asks: What happens when a PI holding an NIH grant dies, given that PIs support post-docs, graduate students, and technicians in his or her lab?

In other words:

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??

Orac is more than happy to answer:

NIH grants are awarded to the institution, not the PI. At a conference the NIH held for new investigators that I attended shortly after I got my first R01, the NIH representatives emphasized again and again that NIH grants are awarded to the institution, not to the individual. Consequently, it’s a custom more than anything else that institutions voluntarily relinquish NIH 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. However, I’m guessing that they know that if they didn’t let PIs take their grants with them when they leave they’d never get any decent funded investigators to agree to work for them. Word would get around that, once a grant was awarded the PI was trapped.

The bottom line: If a PI can no longer continue to be PI on a grant, the institution has two options: either assign it to another PI or, if no faculty member with the necessary expertise exists at the institution, the institution will have to relinquish the remaining funds to the NIH. In fact, I wondered when I heard the news of Judah Folkman’s sudden death what would happen to his lab. He had dozens of people working for him. His were some really big shoes to fill.

As for the ideas, that’s pretty hard to say. If the PI has collaborators and experienced postdocs to carry on, the ideas don’t have to die with him. However, if the PI is secretive and controlling, not allowing his trainees and underlings to know the grand, overall vision for the lab, then, yes, his ideas could well die with him. The way to avoid that is to involve one’s trainees in the brainstorming and creation of the lab’s vision.

One thing ERV’s question reminded me of is that it’s a huge responsibility to be a PI. Before I was a PI, if I failed, only I and my career would suffer. If I fail now, everyone in my lab could suffer. As my first competitive renewal hurtles ever closer, such thoughts are frequently on my mind these days–every day, sometimes multiple times.


  1. #1 Joe
    May 21, 2008

    When I was in grad school, a PI abruptly left, and dumped all his students. (He got a Nobel a while ago, the bastard.) The department rallied and found faculty to adopt his students; but many had to start new projects and lost time. The department kept that loss to a minimum.

    If a PI dies, the ‘ideas’ are usually available to the students (or anyone else) to pursue, although they may have to wait till after they get their PhD in another lab. That assumes the PI is not secretive, as noted by Orac. I have not met anyone like that (but, the World is big), although I know people who were burned by being too open.

    As for Folkman, I thought he was getting on in years and would, presumably, only have post-docs. Since they are short-term from the start (and don’t have to do anything definite, i.e., dissertation) it is not so much of a problem for them.

  2. #2 BioinfoTools
    May 21, 2008

    Excuse me adding a few ruminations of my own.

    Another possible aid to pass on ideas is to maintain an “ideas” book. I forget my own ideas eventually: I need to pass them onto myself, as it were, never mind to any co-workers on my passing! As far as I know I haven’t died yet.

    I’m curious: every (experimental) scientist has log books tracking their experimental work (I hope!), so I presume most put any ideas in there, but how many also maintain a separate “ideas” book?

    I have an “ideas” book, just for ideas. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned or absent-minded but I find it useful. I find it helpful (and fun!) to pore back over my old ideas every 6 months or whatever. It both inflates and deflates the ego to see how many (or few!) past ideas were “right on the button” (but someone else got the funds or gumption to demonstrate them… and the glory!) or what parts proved right and what parts proved wrong.

    Of course, for this to work the PIs will need to state that the log books, “ideas” books, etc., are given to someone able to use them on their passing. And that they are readable to others… I’m willing to bet plenty can only be “interpreted” by their authors! Heck, I have trouble with my own notes sometimes…

    I’m curious as to how often these are placed a will–? I know for certain this has happened in a few (well-known) cases, but not if its a common thing. (I’m just thinking of the original purpose of the article here.)

  3. #3 BB
    May 21, 2008

    I’ve heard of a PI leaving to go to an admin position at another U, leaving the NIH grant behind. The senior post-doc in the lab became an assistant prof in a hurry, and took over the grant. I worked in that lab for a short time before starting grad school, so it was well-known to the lab personnel. In the VA system, awards (these are awards and not grants) can go to a co-PI if the PI retires (happened to my colleague at my VA) or decides to pull out of the work (usually, that happens when an MD PI decides the time commitment is too great – MDs don’t pull salary components off VA awards, so there’s an incentive to pull out and give the grant to a PhD co-PI).

  4. #4 maxi
    May 21, 2008

    Joe: You are lucky not to have met a secretive and controlling PI. I’m nearing the end of my MRes – this is my first postgraduate experience and my PI has been rubbish. Controlling doesn’t even come close. We compare her to a lighthouse on variable speed. When you’re in the dark, you are in the dark; but when her full beam is upon you there is no escape.

    40 days to go, 40 days to go….

  5. #5 DLC
    May 21, 2008

    I’ve never worked in a lab for a PI, but wouldn’t someone else “inherit” the grant if the PI happened to drop dead on the spot ? Or would the work just stop and the lab be closed?
    (Lab … read experimental facility or offices)

  6. #6 blf
    May 21, 2008

    Ah, come on, it’s all decided in advance by Teh Big Pharma Lizard Overlords. Thems decides the date the PI snuffs it, and what happens to the wannabe bribees (grad turkeys and other hangers-on) and the PI’s own Trophy Wife™ and family–who cares about such twaddle? Clearly not Teh Big Pharma Lizard Overlords.

  7. #7 Dr Aust
    May 23, 2008

    In my experience, if any of the people working on the grant are reasonably senior then the next most suitable person in the Dept / Faculty takes over as “nominal PI” but basically the work carries on with the senior postdoc(s) at the helm. Sometimes the lab continues long-term in this “heir inherits” fashion.

    In fact, from the literature it is sometimes difficult to tell when people are no longer with us, as there may be two or three years worth of papers in the can, or nearing completion. A notable recent example is the amazing Stanley J Korsmeyer (of bcl-2 fame). Korsmeyer died tragically young in March 2005, of lung cancer, ironically. However, since his death he has published more than twenty full papers, inc. in Nature, Nature Medicine (two), Cell, Science and PNAS (three).

    Of course, it is probably the epitath most scientists would want – “I regret I’m not here to see it, but the work goes on” .

  8. #8 Molly, NYC
    May 23, 2008

    Y’know, most parents have some contingency plan (however informal) for who’d take care of their kids if the parents kick. Maybe PIs should have similar plans.

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