Ronald Reagan has never paid much attention to science policy issues, yet his administration has poured money into basic research despite record deficits and major cutbacks in areas, such as housing, education and federal health-care programs.

Over all, budgets for basic research have grown 52 percent since Reagan took office.

The fiscal 1989 budget request released on Friday was no exception. Out of the $1.1 trillion the president proposes to spend next year, he wants $64.6 billion for research and development, a $2.7 billion, or 4 percent, increase over last year.

"The administration feels that {research} is one area of government endeavor that is legitimate and has significant potential for the country's future," said Albert H. Teich, head of the office of public sector programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which annually critiques the federal research budget. "It is consistent with the ideological orientation of the administration, and they have put a lot of resources into it."

In the budgetary process, however, all sciences are not equal. To the Reagan administration, biomedical research into the causes of disease and the development of new treatments is not as important as programs in the area of "hard" physical sciences such as the development of a Star Wars weapons system or those that might lead to economic advances, such as new computer chips.

This tilt away from federal support of medical projects has occurred despite a report on the 1987 budget by the conservative Heritage Foundation, which concluded that "basic biomedical research is one of the few activities funded through Washington which is appropriately a federal responsibility."

As a result, the administration and Congress have developed a political pas de deux for funding medical research, which is mostly administered through the National Institutes of Health. First, the administration tries to trim the NIH budget through various bookkeeping techniques. Then, Congress restores the budget cuts and throws in a little extra for this and that program.

In addition to the NIH, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the country's lead agency in the battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome, also has been under fire, with the administration proposing to cut next year's budget. The same is true for the Food and Drug Administration, which, though largely a regulatory agency, funds research studies on the safety of drugs and devices.

Yet, over all, the budget for NIH has grown every year during Reagan's tenure, from $3.3 billion in 1981 to a proposed $6.2 billion for 1989. The budgets for FDA and CDC have moved along at essentially the same level, going up modestly each year.

The biggest item in biomedical research is the war against AIDS to the tune of nearly $2 billion next year for research, education and treatment. While woefully underfunded in the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS now takes the lion's share of research money to find effective ways to treat and prevent the disease.

The sometimes controversial war on cancer has continued to receive big ticket support, with nearly $1.5 billion to be spent next year. At the same time, there have been no major increases in cancer funding since 1980 -- and no redirections in research priorities. What's more, recent studies now show that given current cancer rates, the country probably will not meet its goal of cutting in half the toll from this major killer by the year 2000.

While the president will spend money on basic research, he consistently has tried to cut funding for programs that actually offer services to people even though the line between patient care and research is often blurred. The FDA, for example, constantly under pressure to approve new drugs, especially AIDS drugs, more quickly, has never been given the funding some believe it needs to do its job. Social service programs such as the Medicare program for the elderly have been under cutback pressures every year.

Even beneficiaries of generous government research funding complain that there is little leadership in the administration to set priorities in science. This instability in the nation's research policy appears to arise, in part, from the president's lack of interest in getting advice on how his science budgets could be used most wisely. The result is a hodgepodge of competing big-ticket items in various scientific disciplines, administered by seven different federal departments that lobby intensively for their own projects.

All this raises questions about priorities, about whether thoughtful decisions are being made to support the best projects with the most promise or that meet the biggest needs.

One example of laissez-faire science policy is next year's $46 million budget for a proposed project to map all the genes in the human body -- a project that does not yet exist. Eventually the gene project could cost more than $200 million per year for some 15 years, giving a total cost of some $3 billion.

Yet there has been no formal debate or decision within the government about whether this project is valuable enough to do, how it should be done or which agency should do it.

When Reagan does want scientific advice, he appears to rely more on the "buddy system," according to Jerome B. Wiesner, president emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and President Kennedy's science advisor. Reagan calls on two personal acquaintances, David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., and Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and founder of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. -- the person most credited with generating Reagan's enthusiasm for the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as Star Wars.

For the most part, Wiesner wrote last year, "President Reagan has made no effort to get independent advice about technical questions."

Reagan has shown little interest in even consulting with science advisers in the White House. Neither William Graham, the president's personal science advisor, nor the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, nor the White House Science Council, an 11-member board made up of some of science's most prestigious leaders, which advises Graham, appear to have much influence on Reagan's thinking, several observers of science policy decisions said recently.

In fact, the current budget request for the president's Office of Science and Technology Policy slices nearly 6 percent from its 1989 budget, from $1.888 million to $1.787 million.

In Congress last week, the House science, research and technology subcommittee reviewed how well OSTP advises the president, apparently concluding that changes will need to be made to strengthen the role of that White House office.

At the recent meeting in Boston of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, science policy experts argued about how to get better advice to the next president during a daylong symposium. The National Academy of Sciences reportedly is preparing white papers for presidential candidates, with an eye on helping the next president make rational science policy.

Meanwhile, the current budget will get reviewed and altered somewhat by Congress, but extensive revisions are not expected because the fiscal year 1989 budget is based on a two-year compromise Congress and the White House worked out last fall.

Among the still unresolved in the president's budget are issues of fairness and the fact that science has received more than its share of funding while social programs have been cut. Few research groups, however, appear to complain about the administration's funding of science. Nor do they want to debate the fairness question. During an oversight hearing on the future and role of the White House science and technology office, one witness complained to Congresswoman Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.) that science advisers could not set priorities among research projects because it was like asking them to compare apples with bananas.

Shot back Schneider: "We in Congress have to do that all the time."