This paper is motivated by a shared concern over the apparent lack of inclusion of socially critical research in educational policy intended to address inequitable outcomes from schooling. We recognise that while this is partly (perhaps mainly) a political problem, an effective response by socially critical scholars must also take into account the mechanics of research/policy relationships. We need to understand who else is operating in the contest for ideas, how and why they use research, and how their practices promote and reinforce some types of knowledge and some messages while others are excluded. One example is the work of think tanks. To gain insight into these issues, we construct and consider ‘activity profiles’ of two think tanks operating to influence policy around socio-economic inequalities and education. These suggest some points of interest for researchers working in that same area: points about the differences between different think tanks and about their strengths and weaknesses vis-a-vis the policy process, compared with those of academics. In response, we argue that researchers need to develop a pedagogical not just a critical disposition, and propose a number of potential strategies they could adopt. In order to have an impact, academics must find ways of communicating beyond their scholar peers, in forms that are accessible and digestible, while maintaining the hall marks of robust, peer-reviewed and deeply evidence-based knowledge.