This article considers how knowledge, education and research interact as the institutional structures that support them change. Many efforts at large-scale education reform depend upon the proposition that what counts as useful knowledge can be easily defined, without reference to the specific contexts in which that knowledge will be set to work. Yet 'useful knowledge’ as it appears to policymakers does not always translate into 'useful knowledge’ from the perspective of practitioners. Distance and context matter. Based on studies of the development of literacy policy in England under successive governments, the paper assesses the dislocations and divisions of labour that characterise the contemporary knowledge landscape and asks how the research community can continue to act for the common good in an increasingly crowded and contested education field.