Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A scientific Will

 A sure sign of adulting is finally deciding to write a legal Will to designate how your assets should be handled in the event of your death. Usually this comes around the time one either has enough assets for this to be worth worrying about, and/or has kids who would need to be taken care of.  But nobody really wants to do this task, facing one's mortality in coldly calculating financial and legal terms.

Today, we are going to talk about the unthinkable but common place: what if you or your students should pass away prematurely? It happens, of course. I lost a dear friend in graduate school to a field work accident. I've had colleagues die of suicide, cancer, and accident. The tragedy of these events is terrible and we shy away from contemplating the practical realities they bring. Lives cut short, families fractured. Of these side-effects, it is easy to feel that the least important is the impact on science itself: in-progress projects that won't get completed, datasets and papers without authors, and students without mentors. But these are real tragedies in their own right. An orphaned student is a person in need of mentoring and of the knowledge their mentor provided. An incomplete project represents a labor of love, blood, sweat, and tears by the person who passed, with insights we'd like to learn from. Speaking purely for myself, I'd like to be reassured that my in-progress studies (some a decade in the making) see the light of day even without me. So, it is worth asking: what plans do you have in place for your science, in the event of your death? Do you have a scientific Will that covers your data, your projects, manuscripts, and above all else your students?

I don't.  

But I should. So should you.

So, what would that look like?

First and foremost, talk to your students about their options in the event of your passing. That's not a pleasant conversation, but they'll appreciate that you are thinking about them and their future. Where would their salary and research funds come from? Who would mentor them? Would they stay at the same institution with an intellectually unrelated mentor, or change institutions? Who gets to manage your grants in your absence?

Second, all data, code, figures and manuscripts should be organized into project folders that are shared with multiple other people who can carry on if you cease to be able to continue that work. Have these well organized, with clear data files and meta-data, and a clear checklist of things to-do to bring the project to completion. Those co-owners of the data should know the contents and organization. This is both for PIs (share with students or collaborators) and for students (making sure the PI has full data access throughout).

Third, keep a master plan document (shared with your whole lab) of datasets, projects, and papers in the pipeline. This helps people after you see your trajectory and what is left undone.

Discuss all of the above in lab meeting. Its not a fun topic, but it is far better to have a plan in the event of the worst so that others may continue to benefit from your work even when you are gone. It's the considerate thing to do.

1 comment:

  1. I dunno, actually. All of this adds overhead; it will slow down your work, and so you'll get less done during the time you have left to live. It also requires frequent reviewing and updating; it's not a one-time task, but *continuous* overhead. It would often be unnecessary overhead; sudden, accidental death can certainly happen, but my guess is that the majority of scientists will have at least some warning of their impending death (if not retirement plans!), and will be able to put their affairs in order when that time comes. And it's depressing, demoralizing, and fear-inducing, which also has costs in terms of stress, productivity, etc. And I suspect most of these details – who the mentorship of a student passes on to, say – will get worked out just fine when the time comes, and trying to pre-plan it won't really add much. Life is unpredictable; you might plan that student A will move on to supervisor B in the event of your death, but when you die, maybe supervisor B is busy, or on sabbatical, or themselves deceased, or maybe new faculty member C has just joined the department, needs new lab members, and is a better fit for the student anyway. Can such things really be planned? I'd say there are a few key things that *are* worth making sure of: most notably, that somebody else has your passwords and can get in to your machine, your GitHub, your Dropbox, etc., to access your files. Beyond that, I'm maybe a bit skeptical that this really makes sense. (But happy to hear counterarguments!)


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