The doors to National Institutes of Health are about to swing open to the nation's businesses.

A top-level committee at the federal government's giant in-house medical laboratory in Bethesda is drafting guidelines that will give companies unprecedented access to the institute's enormous research resources.

The NIH initiative follows legislation passed last year by Congress designed to improve the dismal track record of federal laboratories in commercializing their research. Since the 1950s only about 5 percent of the federal government's 28,000 patented inventions have been licensed for public use. The Technology Transfer Act, which affects the nation's 775 federal research laboratories, gives the country's 80,000 federally employed scientists and engineers the means and a "national mission" to share their work with industry.

While some business executives have doubts about that mission, the potential impact on jobs and businesses is enormous.

"Technology exists in our federal labs that is not readily available to private industry," Jack McConnell, corporate director for advanced technology with the Johnson & Johnson Co., told Senate hearings on the bill. "This technology provides the basis for creating entirely new products ... {and} could be a source of thousands, even tens of thousands, of new private-sector jobs in the USA."

Under the proposals to be adopted by NIH, companies will be guaranteed exclusive licensing rights to the fruits of any research undertaken with a government laboratory. In addition, NIH scientists and laboratories will be given hefty incentives to seek commercial applications for their work, such as a share of royalties that would generally be denied a researcher in corporate laboratories.

"It's going to encourage scientists to seek collaborators and industry to seek out scientists," said Ithzak Jacoby, director of the office of medical applications and research at NIH. "Over the next few years we're going to see the building of a great number of fruitful cooperations."

Some of the changes about to be introduced at NIH have been in place informally for the past several years, and the institute has long worked with private industry either directly through scientific collaborations or indirectly through the funding of commercial research. Just this summer, NIH was instrumental in the development by Microgenesys Inc., a biotech firm based in Connecticut, of the first AIDS vaccine for human testing.

But never has the problem of getting technology out of government labs and into the marketplace been given such emphasis.

Just how the new joint agreements will work was demonstrated in July when the Department of Agriculture's Beltsville lab linked with a North Carolina biotechnology firm called Embrex. Under the terms of the agreement, the first of its kind under the Technology Transfer Act, the Agriculture Department and Embrex will produce a vaccine to combat coccidiosis, a chicken disease that can seriously hurt the $7 billion-a-year polutry industry.

Alan Herosian, president of Embrex, said he had been interested in exploiting some of the research done by the Beltsville lab, but "had no idea how to do it. We were looking for a way to make the synergy work, and luckily Congress came along and passed this law."

Without government help, Herosian said, developing the vaccine would be difficult if not impossible. But without the new licensing arrangement, his firm could not have been guaranteed exclusive marketing rights to the fruits of a joint venture.

"We used to have an arm's-length relationship with business," said James Hall, who runs the technology-transfer program at the Beltsville facility. "Now there's much more of a symbiosis. We expect to see steady growth in this area."

Expectations for NIH's program, which should be in place before the end of the year, are running even higher. Already the Washington-Baltimore corridor is home to one of the nation's largest concentrations of biotechnology companies. The hope is that the new licensing agreements and joint-venture arrangements will allow NIH to forge stronger ties with surrounding biotech firms. In fact, the reforms under consideration are modeled closely on those made by the patents and trademark amendments of 1980 that are widely credited with prompting the enormous growth in private-sector funding of university research during the past seven years.

"We are trying to do the same thing for federal laboratories that we did for universities 10 years ago," said Joseph Allen, a technology policy liaison with the Department of Commerce. "If you look at where the big high-tech growth has been recently, it's been around places like Stanford and Harvard in silicon valley and Route 128. We think the same thing's going to happen around NIH."

At present, the institute's ties to local firms are considered to be highly informal. "A lot of people left NIH to go into private industry and decided to stay in the area," Jacoby said. But beyond that kind of cross-pollination of talent, and the inevitable local concentration of biomedical service firms that do contract work for NIH labs, the institute hasn't courted private firms in anything like the manner that major research universities have.

Indeed, to the extent that NIH has worked with industry, institute officials confirm that local firms have played no more prominent a role than anyone else. Genex, one of the oldest and best known of Maryland biotech companies, didn't take any government money from NIH for its first six years. Biotech Research Labs, the Rockville firm that was licensed by the FDA in May to produce the "Western Blot" test kit for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, started almost exclusively as a contract firm for NIH but has moved markedly in the opposite direction in recent years. "We are moving into the commercial arena to minimize the fluctuations of federal funding," Biotech President Thomas Li said.

"When I think of companies with strong NIH ties, I think of firms in Philadelphia," said Parag Saxena, an analyst with Citibank in New York. "When something is right there, sometimes poeple don't take advantage of it. I know lots of people in New York who have never been up the Empire State Building. But I know that whenever I have visitors, that's the first thing they want to see. It's the same thing with Maryland firms and NIH."

Yet while restructuring NIH along the lines of a university might spark increased interaction with the surrounding industrial biotech community, NIH officials are quick to point out that substantial differences remain between the way in which government labs and universities relate to industry.

For one thing, NIH does not have the same dependence on the private sector for research money as do universities. While universities scramble to find new sources of cash from the business community, NIH is performing the opposite function. Last year it doled out $3.7 billion for research grants all over the country, with $44.5 million specifically targeted to small business.

Furthermore, while many academic scientists are given wide freedom to consult with private industry, in some cases being granted one paid working day a week for that purpose, the outside activities of NIH researchers are strictly controlled. Government scientists can't consult on anything directly related to their work -- just on general knowledge -- and have to do it on their own time. Further, they're limited to total annual outside earnings of $25,000, with no more than half of that figure from any one company.

"Getting access to scientists directly is a real problem," complained Steve Turner, CEO of the Gaithersburg biotech firm, Oncor. "Science itself has no value unless you can work with the people directly. If the Washington area ever wants to really compete with Boston and San Francisco it has to unleash the human potential which is presently locked up by the government."

But change is unlikely, some officials said.

"We've gone about as far as a federal agency can. We're a government agency and have to be held accountable to the public," Jacoby said, and other NIH officials spoke of the need for government employes to be "purer" than those in the private sector. Until a few years ago, NIH employes weren't allowed to consult with industry at all.

That commitment to basic research limits the immediate commercial potential of government research.

Bionetics Research Inc. in Rockville, for example, has a fairly close relationship with the National Cancer Institute at NIH. Bionetics is pooling its production facilities with NIH's clinical resources in search of a diagnosis for colon cancer. The principal result of the collaboration won't be a product for market, however, but a research paper for general publication. Working with NIH, said Michael Hanna, vice president and director of research for the firm, "takes us only 10 percent of the way. We have to do the rest of the work ourselves."

According to Richard Nelson, a professor of political economy at Columbia University in New York, industry-government relationships are "often very fruitful. However with few exceptions the benefit to the company is not a process or product but general help, understanding of how to do things."

J. Leslie Glick, formerly of Genex Corp. and now president of Bionix Corp. of Potomac, said, "We are going to see a lot more of these arrangements in the future. It permits a type of interaction with NIH that until recently you just couldn't have.