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.