Humans are altering the hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere in unprecedented ways. Since the late 1980s, a range of geoscience disciplines (such as climatology and ecology) have shown humans to be a “planetary force.” The scale, scope, and magnitude of people’s combined activities threaten to take the planet’s environmental systems out of their Holocene state. This not only raises new research questions for the academic community (such as “What is the best way for a low-income, low-lying country to adapt to sea-level rise?”). It also invites the community to rethink its role in relation to the societies that fund its research and will experience profound impacts of global environmental change. In turn, this rethink raises the question of what kind of research will best suit a change of role. In recent years some global change researchers have called for a “new social contract.” These calls challenge the “old” social contract wherein academic independence was assured by governments so long as universities produced a succession of benefits to society on the basis of both fundamental (non-applied) research and “use-inspired” inquiry and invention. The new social contract directs global change researchers to produce much more of the latter, namely “decision-relevant” knowledge (for governments and other stakeholders). This means that global change research (GCR) will become less geoscience dominated and include more social science and even humanities content: after all, it is human activities that are both the cause of, and solution to, our planetary maladies. A more applied and people-focused GCR community promises to deliver many benefits in the years ahead. However, there are some problems with the way a new social contract is currently being conceived. Unless these problems are addressed, the GCR community will arguably serve societies worldwide far less well than it could and should do. This review describes the old and new social contract ideas in relation to present and future GCR. It does so both descriptively and in a critically constructive way, presenting arguments for a truly new social contract for GCR.