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It’s a classic Hollywood plot-line: the lone hero who emerges from nowhere to pull off a daring rescue. Now there’s talk that just such a figure is needed to rescue science.

The idea of science being in trouble may seem hard to square with the steady flow of advances making headlines each day. But these mask an inconvenient truth: that they’re mostly pygmy steps dressed up to look like giant leaps.

From medicine and public health to particle physics and cosmology, answers to big questions first raised decades ago remain as far away as ever.

Despite intense research, the global pandemics of obesity and Alzheimer’s continue unabated, while the “genetic revolution” that promised cures for major diseases has failed to deliver.

Meanwhile, scientists trying to fathom the mysteries of the cosmos are lost in space. They know the universe is expanding, but have no idea what’s propelling it. They suspect it’s filled with invisible stuff called dark matter, but they don’t know what it’s made from.

The leading contender was a type of so-called supersymmetric particle, widely expected to turn up in experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the giant particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland. But it doesn’t seem to be exist.

Earlier this month a team using the most sensitive detector ever built to identify dark matter admitted they’d come up empty.

Scientists in many areas are growing increasingly worried that without some breakthroughs soon, budgets will be cut, and jobs axed.

The dark clouds are already gathering. According to the leading science journal Nature, plans to build a successor to the LHC in Japan are being scaled back, and it is now unlikely to be built before 2030.

It’s hard to escape the suspicion that over the last few decades, the scientific enterprise has taken a wrong turn.

Many blame the rise of the “publish or perish” syndrome, which encourages scientists to focus on ho-hum problems with a high chance of giving publishable results – and thus more funding.

But now one researcher is proposing a way to break the impasse. The scientific community, he says, should pay more heed to lone researchers with radical ideas.

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Category: Science