Time Inc. has offered to purchase the award-winning, but money-losing, Science 86 magazine from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for approximately $5 million, according to AAAS and Time Inc. sources.

In addition to Time, Life, Fortune, and other publications, Time Inc. publishes Discover -- also an award-winning, but money-losing magazine in the troubled science magazine field. The company is also reportedly seeking to buy Scientific American magazine.

While Time executives officially declined comment, one privately acknowledged that the offer has been made and the AAAS, which is based in Washington, has confirmed that Time is one of several suitors for the magazine.

"There have been several approaches made, and we are seriously examining them," said William D. Carey, executive director of the AAAS and publisher of Science 86, adding that the disposition of the magazine would be determined "in the next 14 days."

In addition to Time, an unidentified publishing company and a group of Science 86 employes also are negotiating to buy the magazine.

With a circulation of 739,000, Science 86 is one of the largest and most highly regarded of the science magazines -- comparing favorably with Hearst Corp.'s Science Digest, Penthouse's Omni magazine and Time's Discover.

While Science 86 once enjoyed moderate financial success, "the AAAS is very much concerned about the precipitous decline in advertising revenue, which dropped 50 percent in two years," said Carey. "We've had trouble with the volatile and unpredictable advertising community.

A source close to Time Inc. indicated that the company is pursuing Science 86 with the intention of folding it and converting its subscribers to Discover, which currently has a circulation of 850,000.

"That is a reasonable assumption," said the AAAS's Carey. That prospect is particularly awkward for AAAS, which, as a nonprofit organization, is chartered to promote an understanding of science for the masses. But Carey said that Science 86's losses, which are running more than $1 million a year, "create opportunity costs" for the AAAS because the money spent on the magazine could be invested elsewhere.

Either way, "all the options for us are painful at this point," he said.

Science 86's plight is typical of that facing the crowded science magazine category.

Scientific American, the oldest and best known of them, has seen its revenue plummet, and it is now for sale. Science Digest is also a money-loser -- and Time reportedly offered to buy it last year but was rebuffed. Omni magazine, a combination of science and science fiction published by the owners of Penthouse magazine, is holding its own.

Many observers see the science magazine battle as a war of attrition, with the winner being the magazine that remains in existence.