President Reagan's proposal in his ''Star Wars'' speech on March 23 calling for the development of antimissile defense systems in space is now being seriously explored by a Pentagon task force. This speech epitomizes America's faith in technological panaceas. But one social invention to promote world peace would cost a mere one-half of 1 percent of the annual military budgets of the United States and the Soviet Union.
The addiction to the search for technological inventions, while neglecting creative social inventions, results in what the late sociologist William F. Ogburn called ''cultural lag,'' which tends to result in major dislocations in our economic, social, and political life. In both the US and the USSR the doctrine of strategic deterrence provides the justification for research and development to deploy and stockpile more destructive nuclear weapons. Almost imperceptibly, the strategy of nuclear deterrence is being replaced in both countries with a strategy of limited nuclear war-fighting in the vain hope of winning and surviving a nuclear war.
Outstanding American physical scientists have warned that the 50,000 nuclear warheads in the arsenals of the US and the USSR are more than enough to guarantee ''mutual assured destruction'' in the event either side resorts to a first strike.
Over the past 30 years, hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers in the US and the USSR have applied science and technology to the designing of more lethal weapons systems. Since 1953, the two nations have spent an estimated $10 trillion on military expenditures. By contrast, a minuscule amount of time and treasure has been devoted by social scientists and other scientists to learn how to:
* Conduct disarmament negotiations between parties which harbor mutual distrust and have deep ideological conflicts.
* Achieve industrial conversion from military to civilian uses.
* Forecast the effects of reversing the arms race on the world economy.
* Design information and communication systems to help manage international crises and reduce chances of a nuclear war.
An international institution exists that is capable of coordinating this type of research. It is the United Nations University established in 1973, headquartered in Tokyo and operating on a very modest budget. Its purpose is to grapple with global problems and thus promote world order. Neither the US nor the USSR has contributed any funds for its operation.
But if the two nations allocated one-half of 1 percent of their annual military budgets to it, roughly $1.25 billion - based on 1981 defense budgets - would be available for peace-promoting and peacekeeping research.
The arms race, to quote Herbert York, is a ''race to oblivion.'' We must invest in the development of new social, political, economic, and legal inventions to stop it and eliminate the fateful ''cultural lag'' between the rapidly accumulating arsenals of nuclear weapons and our feeble institutions of world order.