A call to ethics from outgoing ORS president

By: Terry Stanton

By Terry Stanton

The far-reaching consequences of biomedical research compel scientists to hold themselves to the highest ethical standards, extending far beyond the laboratory, said Regis J. O’Keefe, MD, PhD, in his farewell address yesterday as president of the Orthopaedic Research Society (ORS).

Regis J. O’Keefe, MD, PhD

In his speech, titled “Responsibility and Research: More than Just Responsible Research, “ Dr. O’Keefe said that to act fully and ethically, researchers must contemplate and comprehend the full meaning and scope of science and the scientific method.

“Science is about defining truths about nature,” he said. In the scientific process, researchers attempt to discern what happens in natural events by trying to verify, without prejudice, both the “measured real world” and the “estimated real world.”

To demonstrate that science requires more than a command of the quantifiable, Dr. O’Keefe summoned the example of Albert Einstein, who was neither enthralled by nor particularly skilled at basic mathematics early in his career. Instead, Einstein focused his attention on the study of Western philosophy. This tack led him to challenge fundamental “truths” about the nature of the universe and to conduct “thought experiments” about the units of measurement of space and time, culminating in his development of the general theory of relativity.

Those involved in biomedical science, Dr. O’Keefe said, must view their work as a calling, a mandate to develop methods to understand scientific truths, to gain insights regarding human disease, and to find treatments to alleviate suffering and improve health.

Without these principles, research can be abused, as it was by the Nazis, who inflicted suffering on patients in the name of “research,” Dr. O’Keefe said.

Ethics in full
Although stressing that the core of ethics in research involves both animal subjects and human patients, Dr. O’Keefe described the full range of professional conduct for ethical behavior in research. In the area of publication, for example, these issues include plagiarism and disclosure of conflicts of interest.

Funding by industry, Dr. O’Keefe said, inherently involves the potential for ethical conflicts. Philanthropy-funded medical research is not exempt from the issue of conflict of interest, he said.

Because “science is about creating connections,” collaboration among scientists is absolutely essential, and scientists have responsibilities to the research community, Dr. O’Keefe said. Among those are service to professional organizations, and mentoring, which Dr. O’Keefe described as especially important.

In closing, he said he was proud of the way that the ORS has fulfilled its responsibility to the research community, specifically in the areas of science, education, and advocacy.

“The ORS provides an important opportunity for all of us to realize our commitment to the advancement of science and the eradication of disease and suffering,” he said.

After receiving an ovation for his words and service, Dr. O’Keefe recognized the incoming president of the ORS, Clare M. Rimnac, PhD. She presented two tokens of appreciation to Dr. O’Keefe, who as an undergraduate captained the Yale University basketball team—a jersey with his name on the back and a basketball signed by the ORS board.