The increasingly vociferous debate between researchers and animal welfare proponents took a new turn last week as more than 50 representatives of drug companies, universities, medical organizations and opponents of experimental animal use brought their wildly divergent views to a public hearing convened by the National Academy of Sciences.

*A grass-roots activist from suburban New Jersey told the prestigious panel that her group had found gross violations of the Animal Welfare Act at seven of 10 private and public laboratories whose records were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

*A graduate of the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine said 250,000 members of In Defense of Animals, a national coalition, will stage demonstrations April 24 at nine large universities across the country unless the institutions agree to allow unannounced inspections of their facilities and begin a dialogue with local animal rights proponents.

A member of England's Humane Family Foundation told the panel to consider legislation similar to a law pending in Great Britain that would require project licenses of all researchers who want to use animals and would insist that a "pain-health benefit" analysis be done before experiments involving animals proceed. Pain-health benefit is a ratio of the pain delivered to the animal compared with the good to society from that research.

A spokesman for the American Medical Association said public opinion surveys show that the majority of Americans support biomedical research and said advances in the treatment of cardiovascular illness as well as vaccines for polio and diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus and the efficacy of chemotherapy in childhood leukemia all depended on animal tests.

During the day-long hearing, more than 50 speakers took the podium, with animals rights advocates outnumbering medical practitioners and spokesmen for private labs and pharmaceutical companies by at least two-to-one.

The 12-member committee, created by NAS last year, has until late 1987 to draft a policy statement and recommendations to the medical and research community on the use -- and ways to prevent the abuse -- of animals.

"There are no black-and-white answers here," said chairman Norman Hackerman, a electrochemist, NAS member and president emeritus of Rice University in Houston.

"Our job is to distinguish between the use and abuse of animals . . . Nearly everyone agrees that not all animal experiments are necessary for scientific advancement or even beneficial to humankind. The question becomes more difficult when you try and decide which experiments to eliminate," Hackerman said during in an interview at the conference.

Hackerman said concern for animal welfare is part of the "general rights question: abortion, right to life and interest about what goes on in scientific laboratories that often appear to be shrouded in secrecy." He said the current debate is also characterized by a "certain element of anti-intellectualism" in some quarters.

The committee -- which is made up of researchers, a lawyer, a journalist, a pioneer in heart surgery, a philosopher as well as animal users and opponents -- will probably focus on three broad areas, Hackerman said: "the actual use or nonuse of animals; the optimization of use, by eliminating redundant experiments, reducing funding and insisting on humane treatment and alternatives to animals; and the regulatory approach needed to ensure the appropriate use of animals."

Many speakers at the day-long hearing warned animal advocates about the polarization that is occurring increasingly between those who want to outlaw any and all animal use and those who recognize the scientific importance of animal studies but want stricter control over the kinds of tests and the care of animals used for research.

But Lois Wright of the Animal Welfare Institute said the debate is "not a conflict between scientific progress and respect for animals . . ." Rather, she said, researchers are often looking "for something splashy that they can point to as coming out of animal research without any perspective as to what impact this research has on overall health."

She said animals are often "pawns in a legal system" that demands pharmaceutical houses to do tests because of product liability concerns.

In one of the more emotional presentations, Susan Ravenscroft of the Marion County Florida Humane Society implored the committee to stop the "senseless" killing of animals, alleging that laboratory animals die from burns, starvation, radiation, surgical mutilation, psychological torture and battering.

Many called for stricter enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and its amendments and said unscheduled visits by officials from the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be standard ways of checking on compliance.

Rudy J. Wodzinski of the American Society for Microbiology said the public is often impatient if medical progress in critical areas such as research on AIDS or Alzheimer's disease is perceived as too slow and yet there is a growing clamor to discontinue the animal studies vital to this progress.

He said animals tests have been of special importance in determining the virulence of new infectious agents, especially if the agent attacks a particular organ. Animal studies are also useful in testing drug interactions, cancer-causing properties and responses of the immune system, Wodzinski said.

Inhumane treatment that left the animals unhealthy could change or invalidate the results of a scientific study, Wodzinski said, adding that advances in biotechnology should bring newer and more valuable alternatives.

Several critics of animal rights activists said scientific discovery was being thwarted by extremists who are breaking into university and private labs, vandalizing them and then stealing the research animals.

Frankie Tull of the National Association for Biomedical Research said the last decade has seen "steadily increasing pressure" by animal rights activists "to severely restrict and, in some cases, end research with animals." Tull said these same activists are trying to "cost animal research out of existence" by lobbying Congress to stop funding certain research projects.

Tull called on the committee to strike a balance between the diverse goals of the animal welfare groups and illegal, unacceptable means some use to reach them.

Craig I. Burrell, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, told the panel his group is "committed to resist efforts by animal activists to rank animal rights on the par with human rights."

He said animal tests for toxicity are mandated by the Food and Drug Administration as a prelude to human consumption of a drug. Burrell said that, ironically, animals often benefit from these tests because many of them are treated with the same substances. "No other method has been developed that works," he said.

Several medical research representatives cited a recently released report by the congressional Office of Technological Assessment (OTA), which found that the use of laboratory animals is unlikely to be eliminated in the near future.

The 441-page report said in vitro tests, computerized facsimiles of biologic functions and more rapid dispersement of research findings throughout the medical community could reduce the number of animals used.

The report said that although current reporting methods make it impossible to get hard figures on the number of animals used or killed annually, estimates range between 17 and 21 million. Rats and mice account for the majority, at least 12 million, the same report said.

Joan McQueeney Mitric is a free-lance writer living in Kensington.