Montgomery County, seeking to enhance its image as a haven for the well educated, is moving ahead with plans to develop a luxurious medical research park on prime county land in Gaithersburg.

The proposed 232-acre complex -- to be called the Shady Grove Life Sciences Park -- could attract a wide range of biomedical industries and a university-affiliated research center, according to county officials, who say it could make Montgomery a headquarters for advanced scientific technology such as gene-splicing and drug testing.

County agencies have begun soliciting interest and ideas from firms and educational institutions in the area as well as one firm in the Far East, which officials would not identify.

Although specific uses for the land have yet to be approved by County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist or the County Council, the new facilities could be developed by 1993, according to officials.

Plans call for the life sciences park to surround an existing 60-acre core of land that now houses the Shady Grove Adventist Hospital and the Psychiatric Institute.

County officials estimate that the park could produce as many as 6,000 new jobs, most of which would be held by highly skilled researchers or technicians.

Within 20 years, county planners say, the land, north of Rockville, could accommodate as many as 10,000 workers, a small residential area, and an urban strip with a hotel, conference center, restaurants and shops.

"We are really trying to create a very high-quality image for that area," says Larry Ponsford, a designer with the Park and Planning Commission.

This ambitious plan for a valuable tract of land -- it is worth about $345 million -- has been the target of some muted criticisms because it comes at a time when Montgomery and other less affluent jurisdictions are grappling with more modest development questions such as the construction of affordable housing for a growing number of low-income residents.

"They really have some grandiose ideas over there," said one official in the county executive's office, who thinks the county's priorities may be misplaced. "All they care about is attracting more money and industry, instead of using land to house the poor."

But officials in the Economic Development Office, who have been laying the groundwork for a medical park for more than 15 years, insist that the tract is ideally suited for a life sciences center that would complement a burgeoning high-tech industrial community along the I-270 corridor.

They say the park's proximity to the National Institutes of Health and the federal Food and Drug Administration would attract leading scientific research and development firms.

Although county housing and planning agencies agree in general about the concept of a life sciences park, some housing officials are concerned that the area will become "an office building and industrial island" in the county.

They have proposed a 250-unit residential section -- not for the elderly or the poor, however -- that would serve middle and upper-income employes wishing to live close to their workplaces in the park.

"There is some question of whether subsidized housing or even moderate priced housing would be compatible," says Ponsford.

Norman Christeller, chairman of the park and planning commission, says he hopes housing can be incorporated and that, if done properly, it would not jeopardize the economic potential of the park.

Planners who ponder the potential of this new development frequently use the term "synergy" to describe it, meaning that ideally the park would bring together in one setting the diverse ingredients of industry, education, research, and living.

"Synergy -- that is what we want to create," Ponsford says. "That is what is missing in suburbia."