In this paper we address the revival of interest in recent years in the relevance of geographical research and highlight problems of politicization faced by researchers through cases of policy-oriented research in the UK and Belgium. We argue that geographers should be aware of the possibilities and constraints for critical engagement in the context of policy-oriented research. We identify at least two important opportunities for researchers to avoid clientelistic relationships with contractors and enhance their political relevance. First, researchers can stick to letter of the contract and maintain academic standards while at the same time interpreting their tasks according to their own ethical and political judgements. Second, relevance can be increased by forming alliances within and beyond the formal hierarchies of the state and the academy. The identification and utilization of these 'spaces of relevance' can be seen as the first step towards an approach that strategically seeks a balance between societal engagement on the one hand and contractual obligations, policy relevance and academic standards on the other.