In his dismissal of our criticism of the research funding system, Mark Bisby pays particular attention to the secrecy of proposals (Letters, December). He asserts that this is needed to protect the ideas of researchers from their competitors. Sorry, but unlike real estate, science does not have property lines.
For the publicly funded MRC the prime concern should be public health. If someone has a good idea which can genuinely contribute to health care there are no compelling reasons why it should be "protected" from the rest of the research community. On the contrary, it should be placed in general circulation as quickly as possible to let other researchers try their hand at its implementation. And if others happen to do it better and faster so much the better for the common good.
Contrary to Bisby's logic, it is precisely the present (secretive) system which allows for a relatively easy misappropriation of ideas by those who have privileged access to the proposals. Numerous cases of this kind were recently reported (e.g., an infamous Immunex-Cistron peer review multimillion dollar litigation, Nature, Nov. 7, 1996). The up-front openness of the proposals and the review process will be a firm guarantee against such happenings.
My suggestion therefore is that the full texts of all proposals (not just short summaries) submitted to MRC be published in the public domain immediately upon their submission. They should be considered officially published by this date with printed copies made available to anyone interested (perhaps for a nominal handling charge).
Not only will such a measure be in the true interest of the public but it will actually strengthen (not weaken) the position of the original author in being assigned due credit, because it eliminates the very possibility of misappropriation (nobody can "steal" from the public domain document).
I believe that the conversion of the funding system to an open proposals format is long overdue and we need a broad discussion of this matter.
ALEXANDER A. BEREZIN
Engineering Physics, McMaster University