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Against research?

WHAT'S going on here? A group of American scientists and engineers is organizing a boycott against research on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

They are trying to get colleagues to sign a pledge refusing to participate in such research. The campaign began at Cornell University and the University of Illinois; organizers have tried to take the ill-advised campaign further. Men of science boycotting research?

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Scientists devoted to peace boycotting research on a nonnuclear, defensive system? Boycotting research on a nonnuclear shield that might protect people, in addition to missiles, against nuclear attack?

Comprehensible would be a decision, as a matter of conscience, not to participate in the construction of a killer weapon.

But a refusal to participate in what, at this stage, is mere research into a system that could conceivably prevent enemy nuclear missiles from hitting American cities represents reasoning of a tortuous kind.

Whatever happened to academic inquiry, independence, and freedom to expand the frontiers of man's knowledge? It is important to be clear about what the Strategic Defense Initiative is, and isn't.

When President Reagan proposed it, he made plain that it is an inquiry into a possibility. Nobody, including the President, knows whether it will work. Results of the research will not be clear until long after this President has left office. Then, one of his successors will have to decide whether such a system is feasible. Then comes the decision whether or not to deploy.

Many criticisms are leveled against the project.

First, the research alone will be very expensive.

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Second, it may prove impossible to devise such a system that would shoot down Soviet missiles before they reached their targets. To give up on the idea without even doing the research, however, seems to me to be a total negation of that confident American ingenuity that has taken us to the moon and produced other technological breakthroughs.

Another criticism is that, if deployed, the system might not catch every single incoming missile. That does not seem good enough reason to forgo exploring a system that might destroy most incoming missiles.

And finally, the idea is criticized on grounds that it makes the Soviets unhappy and they feel threatened by it. If the Soviets are unhappy about an American defensive system that might block their missiles, that may be a good reason for exploring it. Some experts believe it is the Strategic Defense Initiative that has caused the Soviets to return to the Geneva arms talks and engage in summitry. As for the system's threatening them, that's a little like saying we shouldn't build armored payroll trucks b ecause payroll robbers will find them intimidating.

Our present strategic policy is based on deterrence. We will maintain an offensive nuclear capacity of such magnitude that it will deter an enemy from attacking. If the Soviets launch a nuclear attack against the United States, they will do immense damage and kill millions, but they know that their country and people will suffer just as horrible destruction in return.

This policy has kept the nuclear peace for 40 years.

What Ronald Reagan wants to explore is the possibility that the world can move away from nuclear deterrence, namely the threat of nuclear offense, to a defensive concept, and perhaps ultimately to the abolition of nuclear weapons.

That vision may be naive. Some people within his own administration think it is. They say we can never be freed of nuclear weapons. They argue, ironically, that the cost of replacing nuclear weapons with the amount of conventional weaponry you would need, say, to defend Europe is astronomical.

So perhaps the vision will never become reality. But is that any the less reason for trying? That's what those misguided scientists who want to stifle even the research seem to have overlooked.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.