It is beginning to be seen in official Washington that the United States has absent-mindedly permitted decay to seep into the system for training some of the specialists who are indepensable to an ambitious, high-technology, problem-laden society: engineers.

The realization hasn't depended on notorious equipment failures of recent times -- aeronautical, nuclear, spaceborne, and so on -- though these catastrophic breakdowns do invite curiosity about the quality of design and manufacture. Rather, among the people who run the engineering schools and the employers who hire their graduates, there's long been concern that the United States has been dangerously neglecting this field of education. And at last they're being heard.

Typical of the alarms being expressed among engineering educators is one by Donald Glower, dean of engineering at Ohio State University, who says that his school and others lack the funds to equip their laboratories with up-to-date computers and other equipment. "Our graduates," Glower says in Science magazine, "are going out into industry not knowing the technology of today. They have been trained in the technology of yesterday."

Washington's budget managers used to dismiss remarks of this kind as just the normal background noise from the insatiable ranks of higher education. But in the introspection that has been spawned by this nation's industrial slump, it is now accepted that engineering education has come down with some serious afflictions, financial and otherwise. The ultimate sign of this recognition is that the White House has asked the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education to collaborate on a quick study, due July 1, on the state of science and engineering education.

Measured in terms of enrollments, engineering schools are doing just fine, with near-record numbers of under-graducate students drawn to the field by the booming demands of the energy and military-hardware industries. However, high starting salaries for bachelors of engineering -- $20,000 a year is not unusual -- provide a great lure for going directly to work rather than on to graduate studies. One effect is that foreign students, usually subsidized by their governments, make up an increasingly large proportion of students receiving the most advanced engineering education in the United States, perhaps as much as 40 percent of all graducate engineering enrollments. And what follows from this is a growing shortage of qualified American candidates for junior faculty jobs. It is an oddity of the mostd technologically advanced nation in the world that is increasingly dependent upon foreign nationals -- predominantly from developing nations -- for the training of its engineers. Since by many accounts they do it well, the United States should be grateful for their availability. But, given the ups and downs of international relations, it can be asked whether this is a prudent way to run a vital education system.

What also merits notice is the pecking order of science and engineering in Washington. One simple reason that engineering schools have fared relatively poorly at the federal trough is that science and engineering are lumped together in the thoughts of Washington -- but the show is generally run by scientists, and they are a very different breed from engineers. Academic engineering does not have an agency of its own on the federal landscape, the reason being that whenever the matter is raised, the scientists who run the National Science Foundation insist that they'll attend to what's needed by the engineers. The fact is, however, that engineering tends to be regarded by scientists as intellectually less demanding than pure research; it has never gotten more than crumbs from NSF, whose staff, drawn largely from academic science, feels it has a holy obligation to keep the money flowing into basic science, a profession that cultivates memories of long-ago neglect.

Congressional pressure and pleas from engineers on NSF's senior board now and then shake loose some funds for engineering programs. But one gets the sense that this is grudgingly awarded hush money -- nothing more. NSF's indifference to engineering is, in fact, so deeply ingrained that a lot of engineers are now persuaded that the only remedy is to establish a counterpart National Engineering Foundation.

What ails the engineers is that because of their long association with industry, they didn't pay much attention while their scientists colleagues, early in the postwar period, began to dig into Washington. The engineers, thinking they didn't need close links to Washington's power centers, let the White House science office, for example, become an outpost of academic science.

The symbol of the engineers' long political slumber is perhaps best illustrated by the embarrassing placement of the 15-year-old National Academy of Engineering, which is supposed to be the most important honorary society of American engineering. Legally, it is merely one of several subsidiaries, as well as a tenant, of the century-old National Academy of Sciences, the Vatican of university-based fundamental science.