It's the triangle formula: a mega-project plus the scientific establishment plus Congress equals the politics of American research.

This time, the major new proposal is the project to decipher all the 100,000 genes in the human body, known collectively as the genome. Lining up are the heavyweight institutions of the Energy Department (DOE) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In Congress, Senators Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Lawton M. Chiles Jr. (D-Fla.) are carrying the banner for high-tech extravaganzas against the more budget-minded gladiators on Capitol Hill and in the administration who want to hold down government spending.

The genome project has been described as the holy grail of biology because it could provide intimate, detailed knowledge about the identity and, eventually, function of all human genes, giving physicians a genetic blueprint of normal development as well as a map of what causes a wide range of diseases.

Last week, the National Academy of Sciences released a report urging some $200 million a year in new appropriations to start the project. Over 15 years, the total cost could reach $3 billion.

But the human genome project will have to compete with other big science projects, such as the proposed space station, estimated to cost $14.6 billion, and the proposed giant atom-smasher called the super-conducting supercollider, estimated to cost $4 billion to $6 billion, not to mention replacing the shuttle Challenger, going to Mars, and adequately funding the battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the war on cancer.

In an era of record budget deficits, can another big-ticket science program, such as the genome project, survive?

Proponents are optimistic that they will get at least some of what they're asking for.

"I think it is going to happen," said Steven Keith, a key legislative assistant on the health subcommittee headed by Sen. Kennedy. "A lot of people are interested in this. The National Institutes of Health. The Department of Energy. There is a lot of pressure from private companies that stand to benefit."

Yet even as the major players jockey for position in the coming debate, there is a consensus that big science is more likely to happen in small steps. What's more, the political fight over the genome project is increasingly seen not as a thumbs-up/thumbs-down battle but as a question of who -- what government agencies and which scientific groups -- will control the research.

Keith said that although Congress will not dump $200 million into the project tomorrow, "a jump of $50 million to $100 million is within the range of possibility, despite the budget constraints." In December, Congress appropriated $17.4 million for the National Institute of General Medical Science, a part of NIH, and $11 million for the Department of Energy, to begin developing the technologies that will be needed for the genome project.

One observer pointed out it is not such a big leap from the nearly $30 million already appropriated by Congress this year to $50 million, $100 million or even $200 million.

In addition, the NIH already spends some $300 million a year for smaller individual experiments that provide the kinds of information that would be generated by the genome project.

"I think we will see additional money at NIH," said a legislative assistant to Sen. Chiles, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the NIH budget.

Not all the controversies around this project center on Capitol Hill. Some leaders in the biology community, for example, oppose the genome project.

"The scientific rationale for sequencing {identifying all the sub-units of} the human genome is not particuarly evident," said Dr. David Baltimore, the Nobel Prize-winning director of the Whitehead Institute of Biomolecular Research in Cambridge, Mass. Baltimore, despite basically opposing a large-scale genome effort, recently was appointed chairman of a committee to advise the NIH director. A meeting is planned toward the end of February.

"We should not organize it in a big-science manner," Baltimore said last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston. "I am worried we will build an institute of the human genome and divert large resources from universities."

The genome project rekindles the old debate in research circles over whether a moon-shot type program is appropriate in biomedicine. "The controversy in the biology community," said Dr. Bruce Alberts of the University of California at San Francisco and an NAS committee chairman, "is whether any planning in biology makes sense."

The medical parallel to landing on the moon has been the nation's highly touted war on cancer. Alberts said some feel the war on cancer was a "misleading kind of semifailure" that, although it produced good research, has yet to deliver the cure for cancer that was promised to the public.

Although many policy planners and scientists expect the genome project to have a profound impact on developing diagnoses and treatments for the more than 3,000 inherited illnesses, others caution that the project should not "overpromise" results.

In the current debate, caution and compromise seem to be the dominant themes for the research establishment. As Alberts said, the National Academy committee -- made up of some of the most prestigous molecular biologists in the world -- arrived at a consensus that long-range planning is appopriate for biology as long as it is done carefully. The committee envisions that the project would stick to traditional ways of doing biological research, which is sometimes referred to as a cottage industry, with individual researchers working independently in their own labs.

In the committee's proposal for mapping the human genome, individual centers would perform certain parts of the research, with a central facility providing the basic genetic material to be analyzed. The project would also need a large computer facility to store and analyze the incoming data. Where the central facility would be located is one of the major political issues to be resolved.

The committee also took pains to recommend that the project set in place traditional mechanisms of peer review, in which respected scientists in a field judge the quality of work proposed by other scientists.

The NAS committee also recommended establishment of a scientific advisory board to help regulate the quality of the research, decide which technologies should be used and chart the long-range course of the project. A similar scientific advisory board has been proposed in a Kennedy-Chiles bill to coordinate and speed-up biotechnology research, including the genome project.

An overall board is felt to be necessary to coordinate the activities of NIH and DOE, the two government agencies competing for control of the genome project. While Dr. David Smith, head of DOE's genome initiative, said cooperation between DOE and NIH has been reasonably good, that has not always been the case.

The Energy Department, with the help of Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), tried last year to move a substantial portion of the proposed project to either the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., or the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M.

DOE leaders have sought to establish control of the genome project, arguing that the existence of related, ongoing studies at the national labs justifies their taking over and getting the additional funding.

Yet others on the Hill, who felt the project more naturally belonged at the National Institutes of Health, were frustrated that NIH failed to provide aggressive leadership despite strong personal interest in the project by NIH director Dr. James B. Wyngaarden.

Part of NIH's caution stems from the biology community's fear that funds would be siphoned from other research. Without the political support of the research community, NIH's leaders were reluctant to push hard for the genome project.

"I think {NIH's failure to lead} was true in the beginning," said Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the division most likely to oversee any NIH role in any genome project. "NIH was deeply concerned that this should not in any way take away from the other research activities."

Now that the debate in Congress has focused on additional funds for the genome project, these fears have been somewhat reduced. "Having found that the Congress is very much interested in this, NIH will be taking a specific leadership role," Kirschstein said.

A two-day meeting with congressional staffers and NIH scientists is scheduled around the end of February to discuss the technology and funding needs of the project.

Congressional hearings, too, are in the works. Kennedy will bring experts to Boston in March to discuss the biotechnology bill he and Chiles already have introduced.

Another report on the genome project by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment is expected in a month or two.

At this point, however, despite all the current activity, a consensus is emerging that the only political way to get the gene-mapping project off the ground is to start slowly -- and not try to launch the equivalent of a moon-shot program in biomedicine.

As one legislative assistant said: "Right now, it looks like it is going to be small science with some big science aspects. It is not going to be a moon shot, at least for the first few years."