Washington People: James DuBois

Bioethics expert tackles big questions, fosters human side of science

James DuBois
James DuBois, DSc, PhD, director of the Bioethics Research Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, talks with colleagues during a meeting in November on the Medical Campus. (Photo: Matt Miller/School of Medicine)

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.”

It also helps researchers identify where their own lapses in research ethics might have originated, or how they fell short in complying with any relevant regulations — whether, for example, in making missteps to getting informed consent for research involving people; in research protocols involving animals; in managing data storage; or in providing oversight of data analysis by trainees. After examining how the problems came to be, the workshop provides strategies to remedy them.

The human side of science, medicine

To help inform the program, DuBois and his colleague Alison Antes, assistant professor of medicine, also study researchers who embody model qualities. The two interviewed 52 investigators nationwide whom they dubbed research exemplars, or researchers who conduct consistently high-quality research while exemplifying integrity and professionalism. Fellow scientists nominated the researchers.

In a recent publication about these standout investigators, Antes and DuBois wrote, “According to the exemplars, research requires attending to matters of heart as much as mind. The human dimension in research was the common thread in their advice for a successful career.”

Indeed, the single most important quality for career success — cited by more than half of the exemplars — might come as a surprise. It was not skill or intelligence. Likewise, passion, resilience and leadership were high on the list, but not at the top.

The most important key: good relationships.

“Having good working relationships is an ethical issue that is often ignored,” DuBois said.

Read the full profile on the School of Medicine site. 

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