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Note: this post is something I’ve thought a great deal about in the last few years, mostly the result of the loss of two wonderful ornithologists, Gary Bortolotti, and Brad Livezey, in 2011. I didn’t know them personally, but I knew their work.

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

– JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

While we don’t often like to think about it, the human race has a 100% mortality rate, and  often, this life history event doesn’t occur when we expect it.  We are advised by family members, doctors, and lawyers to keep a will – a statement of what is to happen to our assets (and our body) when we shuffle off this mortal coil.  This attempts to minimise conflict amongst our inheritors by laying out our plans clearly and concisely (in theory at least).

As scientists, we have reams of samples, data, equipment, field notebooks, personal libraries, and in some cases, students.  I’m suggesting that scientists should have an academic will.

In a few cases, like provincial or federal government scientists, everything goes to the crown.  But for the rest of us, I suspect that a fair chunk would be lost if we keeled over.  To say nothing of what would happen to grad students in our research groups.

Many of us also work with collaborators that rely on us for analyses, and in an exception case, it’s possible a current or former student could fill that roll.

So take half an hour sometime soon, look at what “academic assets” you have, and make a plan.  Talk to colleagues, talk to department chairs (who would pay your students? What happens to your grants and lab/office space?), and talk to current and former students, especially if they are continuing in research.  And chat with your current/former advisors – do they have plans?

Much has changed during the proliferation of “scientist” as a profession in the last 100-150 years.  Rarely are our correspondence and notebooks now archived in libraries because most of our correspondence is now by email, and our notebooks replaced with spreadsheets and data files.

But whatever your plan is, make one.  Just like with family, discussing it with our “academic families” won’t necessarily be pleasant, but it’s something we should do.



Marc Leger on Twitter made a great suggestion – since you can buy templates for personal wills, why not have universities or academic societies develop templates for an academic will?  It then becomes a simple exercise of updating it every year.

And I think this is especially pertinent to those of us who do field work, often in remote locations.