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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.”


Published 4/1/2010
Terry Stanton

A call to ethics from outgoing ORS president

Dr. O’Keefe outlines the responsibilities of research

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 as president of the Orthopaedic Research Society (ORS) at the ORS Annual Meeting in New Orleans in March.

Regis J. O’Keefe,

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.

He also noted that ethical boundaries for animal research gained earlier acceptance and adherence than those for human subjects. Summarizing the goals of the Animal Welfare Act of 1985, Dr. O’Keefe said that animal work should “balance societal benefits with imposition on animals, both with respect to suffering and numbers of animals.”

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. Research programs in industry must complement programs funded by the National Institutes of Health. All research done with industry funding must make full disclosure, and funding must be done independent of marketing, he said.

Noting the rise of philanthropy in the funding of medical research, Dr. O’Keefe pointed out that philanthropic funding permits high-risk inquiries and offers the potential for breakthrough research. The philosophy of philanthropy-funded work, however, “should be consistent with sound scientific goals and principles,” he said, and is not exempt from the issue of conflict of interest.

Because “science is about creating connections,” collaboration among scientists is absolutely essential, said Dr. O’Keefe. Collaboration involves work among scientists with different areas of expertise. “Complex problems—molecular signaling pathways, cellular networks, hormone and system regulation, tissue interactions—can’t be solved alone by a biologist or an engineer,” he said. Collaboration must also include cooperation among organizations, institutions, and foundations.

In closing, Dr. O’Keefe 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.

Terry Stanton is the senior science writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at tstanton@aaos.org