Principal investigators (P.I.s) are not immune to things like traffic accidents, fatal diseases, or acts of terrorism.

Is it common to have contingency plans as to what will happen with funding, experiments, PhD supervision, and everything else that a P.I. is supposed to be responsible for? And if so, what do these plans look like?

[Full disclosure: I'm asking this because I personally have had a close encounter with death in the middle of a project I'm a co-P.I. of.]

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    I'd assume that this will depend on the funding body. And I'd further assume that this happens rarely enough that each case will likely be a separate decision, which will likely mostly depend on how far along the project is, whether there is a co-PI or a competent senior researcher that could take responsibility etc. Apr 23, 2015 at 7:13

3 Answers 3


No. The nice thing about most academic departments is that the bus factor is fairly high such that if an individual PI is incapacitated, there is generally enough slack in the system to compensate.

Most funding bodies allow for contingencies. They understand that things happen and that the funding often affects people other than the PI. In the case of the death of a PI, the funder would likely allow for a change in PI to take place. If there is not a single PI who has the required administrative and scientific experiences, co-PIs can be appointed (e.g., someone who has managed grants before and a post-doc who understands the research).

Experiments being run by PhD students, post docs, and RAs, would likely continue unchanged. Experiments being run directly by the PI would probably cease immediately unless there were ethical concerns (think a drug trial). In these cases there is probably someone else involved or a contingency plan in place.

Supervision of PhD students would likely be covered by someone else on the thesis committee.

Teaching and committee responsibilities would simply be reassigned. Immediate teaching duties will often be given to a post doc or graduate student.


At the institute where I did my PhD (in the Netherlands), a contingency plan was made at the outset. A PI doing similar work signed a form saying he was ready to take over supervising me if my own PI was unable to for any reason. I don't know how common it is for educational institutions to have such a policy.

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    I hope this practice will be adopted elsewhere. Dec 12, 2015 at 1:57

I have seen this happen--we had a professor at my undergraduate institution die of cancer. This is a little different, I suppose, because it was not sudden and so arrangements could be made. In this instance, his PhD student(s?) were allowed to continue their project in a group that did similar work. Mind you, this was a student near graduation. I suspect a newer grad student would probably not have been far enough along in their project to see it through to the end, and may have ended up making a bigger shift.

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