Research has delivered remarkable benefits for cancer patients and their families since James Watson and Francis Crick wrote the now immortal line, ‘We wish to propose a structure for the salt of deoxyribonucleic acid’ thus setting the molecular foundations for the modern era of cancer control. The pace of technological innovation from fundamental scientific discoveries to the policy impact of huge population studies has been breathtaking. One has only to contrast a paper on the treatment of solid epithelial cancers written by Henri Tagnon and colleagues in 1966 (Eur J Cancer 2 51–7) with the myriad of chemotherapeutic approaches at the oncologists disposal today. Inevitably, as the tide of research has risen so it has bought the flotsam and jetsam of regulations and policies. Some have been helpful, many pointless and too many actually harmful. Naturally, some of these regulatory and general policies (by this I mean those concerned with funding, structure and organization) have been specifically targeted at cancer research, e.g. US National Cancer Act 1971, whilst others have been a product of the general regulatory environment with indirect consequences for cancer research, e.g. EU Data Protection Directive 1995. Policy issues thus cover a vast terrain criss-crossed by complex interdependencies between scientific areas, countries S&T policies and socio-political constructs. Unfortunately, there has been little attention paid to the consequences of these policy issues from which the research community has, by and large, been passenger rather than driver.