Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 381–391 | Cite as

Regulation and the social licence for medical research

  • Mary Dixon-WoodsEmail author
  • Richard E. Ashcroft
Scientific Contribution


Regulation and governance of medical research is frequently criticised by researchers. In this paper, we draw on Everett Hughes’ concepts of professional licence and professional mandate, and on contemporary sociological theory on risk regulation, to explain the emergence of research governance and the kinds of criticism it receives. We offer explanations for researcher criticism of the rules and practices of research governance, suggesting that these are perceived as interference in their mandate. We argue that, in spite of their complaints, researchers benefit from the institutions of governance and regulation, in particular by the ways in which regulation secures the social licence for research. While it is difficult to answer questions such as: “Is medical research over-regulated?” and “Does the regulation of medical research successfully protect patients or promote ethical conduct?”, a close analysis of the social functions of research governance and its relationship to risk, trust, and confidence permits us to pose these questions in a more illuminating way.


Medical research Bioethics Regulation Social licence Trust Professions 



We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number RES-000-22-1908). Mary Dixon-Woods’ work on professions is funded by the ESRC’s Public Services Programme (grant RES-153-27-0009). Part of the analysis here draws on a review of the literature on regulation of medical research conducted for the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. We thank them and our colleagues on this project, Alan Bryman, Roger Brownsword, Karen Yeung and Emma Angell. We are very grateful for the comments of referees on the first draft of this paper, which were influential in its revision.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Health SciencesUniversity of LeicesterLeicesterUK
  2. 2.School of LawQueen Mary, University of LondonLondonUK

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