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Shortsighted lab cuts

There can be little quarrel with the proposition that at a time of federal budget restraint the expenditure of each taxpayer dollar must be thoroughly justified. The other side of the coin is that programs clearly furthering national prosperity deserve support.

In this light one must be concerned when the budget-cutting axe lands with a grim finality on such investment-oriented programs as the 790 or so US government research laboratories. These labs include important federal research facilities at Argonne, Ill., Oak Ridge, Tenn., Livermore, Calif., and Los Alamos , N. M., to cite just a few.

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Currently, four federal studies are under way regarding the effectiveness of these facilities. Budgets are being slashed and staffs are being asked to redirect research away from such ''social'' fields as energy and the environment into more military-related issues.

The White House, of course, is justified in wanting to take a hard look at how well these facilities spend their not inconsiderable taxpayer funds - as well as in ensuring that there are reasonable priorities within the research field. Some ''peripheral'' projects may have been allowed to gobble up scarce dollars over the years. So a good management review is not unreasonable.

What must be avoided, however, is the type of budget slashing that would render the labs unable to perform their historic role as the ''cutting edge'' of US technological research. It should be noted that the proportion of US gross national product devoted to R&D (research and development) has dropped roughly 20 percent since 1965. In competing industrial nations R&D has grown during that same period. Nor should it be overlooked that US industry has pulled back from expansion and modernization programs during the past year. Such capital programs have traditionally been linked to gains in R&D, since they provide the ''plant infrastructure'' needed for new development programs.

The Reagan administration is committed to keeping the US a world superpower second to none. That being the case, it seems inappropriate to sharply reduce funding for the very research institutions and ventures that will keep the US at the forefront of technology and basic science. Surely, each dollar spent in R&D will return to society in the form of new products, scientific breakthroughs - and, yes, even jobs.