There is an intern sharing the office with me. Once day his PI came to talk to him. Since there were only 3 of us in the office, although I didn't pay attention, their conversation just automatically went into my mind.

The story is like this: the intern had worked for 2 months, and he was going to leave. However, he would not let the university know that he was leaving. Instead, the PI would tell the university that the intern would work for another month. When the intern received the paycheck of the last month, he would send it to the PI.

At first, I think this was not right, the PI was stealing project money for personal use, and I needed to do something. However, in second thought, I think he might be the best one to deserve that money.

After all, he is the sole PI of the project, and there is no co-PI. The funding of the project comes from a (very competitive) external grant that he has spent a lot of effort to write proposal etc.

I think it is not very fair for the intern, since he has worked really hard, even in the weekend, so that the project can be shorten. He is going to start his PhD, and has promised to continue to work on that project in his free time.

Although it is not very fair for him, he will not benefit at all if I take any action. In contrast, he may still really want to continue the collaboration that way. This PI is friend of my boss (PI), I haven't talked much to him, but he appeared to be a nice guy. This is surely none of my business.

TL;DR: I know the PI cheats the system, but is it still right ethically given the fact that he has to fight really hard for this grant money? What should I do in this situation?

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    I don't think very many people will agree that "it's hard to get grant money" is a valid justification for misusing it. The contrary, in fact. Aug 29, 2016 at 22:30
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    Also, the intern would be complicit, by accepting pay for time he didn't actually work (regardless of whom he gives the money to afterward). If he's caught, besides possible civil or criminal consequences, I could imagine this sort of behavior resulting in debarment by the funding agency, making him ineligible to receive grant funding, potentially for life. That's a career killer for sure. I don't think you are doing him any favors by letting him go through with this. Aug 29, 2016 at 22:37
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    In contrast, the PI might be able to pin all the blame on the intern. "He signed a time card saying he worked for that time. I had no way of knowing that he didn't. I thought the check from him was just a nice gift to support my research." Aug 29, 2016 at 22:38
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    "Fraud" is the word we're looking for here... Aug 29, 2016 at 22:41
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    I am not sure it is none of your business. Suppose your department is caught misusing grant money. That could affect your PI's ability to get grants. Aug 30, 2016 at 0:22

3 Answers 3


The person who owns the money for a project is not the PI, nor even the university, but the funder who has supplied the money. The university, and through that organization the PI, is essentially granted custody of the money, and it is their responsibility to ensure that it is disbursed to the appropriate persons in compliance with their contract and the rules of the funder and university.

What you have described is pure and simple embezzlement, and needs to be reported to a responsible authority. It's possible you misheard, but if you're certain about it, you have a duty to report, or else you are aiding and abetting the embezzlement.

Now, how to report safely is a potentially difficult issue. If there are people in the university administration that you can trust to take action, that would be one route. In the United States, you can also often report directly to the funder, often including through an anonymous hotline designed for just such occasions.

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    @paulgarrett Oh, absolutely criminal. In the US, this would be a federal criminal offense, and possibly a felony (I didn't put that in my answer since I'm not certain of the threshold for felony offenses here).
    – jakebeal
    Aug 29, 2016 at 22:43
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    In fact, OP knowing and doing nothing may expose him to potential legal difficulties as well, although short of Stack Exchange giving him up I doubt they could prove he knew.
    – corsiKa
    Aug 29, 2016 at 23:17
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    I am deeply uncomfortable labeling someone who does not report the issue as "aiding and abetting". While I agree that the most moral course of action would be to report it, I'd stop well short of calling it a moral obligation. "Aiding and abetting" is a legal term, and "aiding and abetting" a crime is a (legally punishable) crime itself. Unless it is a "mandatory reporting" situation, where there is indeed a legal obligation to report, using the phrase "aiding and abetting" is unjustly pejorative.
    – R.M.
    Aug 30, 2016 at 17:46
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    @R.M. In the United States, FAR imposes mandatory reporting on government contractors. I'm not certain whether that passes all the way down to a student (they are often in grey zones or considered exceptions), but it certainly hits employees.
    – jakebeal
    Aug 30, 2016 at 17:53
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    @Makyen, the statue you cite includes an element of *affirmative concealment*—in other words, lying to authorities or otherwise helping to cover up the crime. definitions.uslegal.com/m/misprision-of-a-felony (I am not an attorney, and this is not legal advice).
    – 1006a
    Aug 31, 2016 at 3:06

In your shoes, I would talk to a lawyer. That's what I did when a similar thing happened to me about twenty years ago.

What my lawyer told me was that "overheard" didn't make me an accessory to the crime, and that I should only "speak when spoken to," (I'm assuming that neither the PI nor the intern addressed you directly about this matter.) "Overheard" things can be too easily misunderstood, miscontrued, etc., presumably you didn't get to see facial expressions and perhaps not body language that would support or weaken your belief.

My own lawyer said that what I heard would be treated as "hearsay" in a court of law, and not allowed as evidence. He did say that if an investigator made the rounds, that would be the time to step forward, basically to guide the investigator, as opposed to providing "solid" evidence.

There is one difference between your situation and mine; that is, you actually work for the same university as the people you overheard, (In my case, the conversation from employees of another company took place in a common area.) Because of that fact, you might want to report it through your own "chain of command," that is, your own boss. Perhaps, the lawyer will tell you differently, e.g. to use Human Resources. One thing you do want avoid at your place is reporting this to someone who is sympathetic to the PI, and possibly being "frozen" out as a result. A good lawyer will tell you how to avoid this.

What you probably don't want to do, is to talk to the intern, at least not without "help." Then you would be a party to something, without the means to resolve it. Let higher authorities handle this, unless they want you as a witness during the likely confrontation. That's the time to step forward.

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    This is good advice, regardless of the moral side, which jakebeal addresses (Imo correctly), this is a practical way of approaching the problem taking into account OP's "safety", which none of the other answers seem to consider.
    – hjhjhj57
    Aug 30, 2016 at 6:38
  • Regarding only step forward if investigated: Would this case make any difference if it were not about one paycheck (probably not that much money), but about, e.g., scientific misconduct (e.g., falsification/fabrication)? But I agree that it's easy to misunderstand things. Aug 30, 2016 at 9:23
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    @DanielWessel: No, according to my lawyer, the issue was "overheard," because that's not solid evidence. I appended the advice by saying that you should report it through "back channels," such as your own boss, not keep silent altogether. In "military" terms, if you're leading a patrol that discovers a superior enemy force, you should not "engage," (and possibly get wiped out), but rather return to your own lines and report it to a superior officer.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 30, 2016 at 14:00
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    @Stefan: In my case, I could. He was my tenant while attending law school, and this was a 5-10 minute question for him. Many (not all) people have a lawyer friend that they can consult. There are law clinics that will help people pro bono. Some lawyers will offer 15-30 minutes of "free" consultation just to determine whether your case is worth hearing. And my answer has allowed the OP to "see a lawyer" in a "vicarious" way.
    – Tom Au
    Aug 30, 2016 at 15:58
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    Given that your lawyer said what you heard was hearsay, the situations are probably different. Hearsay is "I heard Mary say 'Tom was in town.'". That can't be used to prove Tom was in town. However, you can testify about what you hear directly. What the OP describes is his overhearing two people conspiring to commit fraud. IMO, the OP could not testify as to the actual commission of fraud. But, the OP could testify as to the commission of conspiracy to commit fraud.
    – Makyen
    Aug 30, 2016 at 23:34

I think it should be either prevented or reported. It is quite likely that the intern assumes that anything the PI says to do is OK, and yet could be the one who gets all the blame for accepting pay for time not worked.

I suggest discussing the matter with the intern, making sure you understood the conversation and, if so, warning him of wrongness of what he is being asked to do.

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