James DuBois believes in second chances.
DuBois, DSc, PhD, the Steven J. Bander Professor of Medical Ethics and Professionalism at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, founded the first national training program for researchers who have had lapses in laboratory compliance or research ethics, providing strategies and resources to help them get back on track.
“I grew up in a household where everyone was quite passionate — quick to yell perhaps but quick to forgive,” DuBois said. “And I think that element of my upbringing might come through in this training program. People make mistakes. Let’s help them do a better job.”
Finding a remedy
The Professionalism and Integrity in Research Program is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and provides intensive training in the responsible conduct of research. Since its inception in 2013, nearly 90 researchers from over 60 institutions across the country have been through the three-day workshop. Scientists’ participation typically is required by the institutions where they work.
“Most of the scientists who come to our program are good researchers,” said DuBois, also a professor of psychology and of medicine. “But maybe they’re not prioritizing research compliance, or they’ve got so many projects, they can’t provide adequate oversight. These aren’t people who have deliberately fabricated data — that’s a more egregious offense that would be handled differently. But even if it’s not deliberate, poor data management practices can create false data, and the scientific community needs a way to address these kinds of problems.”
The Professionalism and Integrity in Research Program is unique across the country, according to DuBois. Before it began, he said, institutions seemed to have only two options for addressing lapses in research compliance or integrity: Fire the researcher, which might end a career; or write a stern letter and perhaps require an online training module, which does little to elicit true change.
Frustrated by these limited extremes, DuBois sought a middle ground.
“Our program is focused on teaching good decision-making skills, stress management, people management, leadership skills and providing a lot of practical tools so that when the researchers return to their labs, they have concrete strategies they can apply to make everything run more smoothly,” said DuBois, who also directs the Bioethics Research Center, which is part of the university’s Institute of Clinical and Translational Sciences. “Being investigated for wrongdoing is traumatic, and we have found that our program really does help scientists get their careers going again.”