Federal scientists and engineers who are part of an experimental personnel project at two West Coast facilities earn from 8 to 12 percent more than their counterparts in the Washington area, a new study by the Office of Personnel Management reveals.

The Navy Department civilian workers -- based in San Diego and China Lake, Calif. -- are part of a four-year-old Navy demonstration project set up by the Carter administration. There are higher job performance standards but there is also the chance to move up faster than through regular civil service pay and rank levels.

About 5,000 civilian workers, ranging from administrators to clerk-typists, are involved.

Scientists and engineers at the two California test sites generally get bigger paychecks than workers doing the same kinds of jobs at similar facilities such as the Naval Surface Weapons centers in Dahlgren, Va., and White Oak, Md., and the Naval Air Development Center in Warminister, Pa. The Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania Navy offices are under the regular civil service pay-promotion-grade system that covers most of the government's white-collar civilians.

OPM is in the midst of evaluating the costs and benefits of the Navy program, which could be extended to other agencies later this year if Congress approves it.

Under the Navy experiment, employes are divided into groups -- engineers/scientists, technicians, administrative employes and clerical workers -- with each group being covered by pay bands that are much broader than regular civil service GS grades.

In each of the first 15 civil service grades, for example, the salary range from bottom to top is 33 percent. Within the experimental pay bans, however, the range between the minimum and maximum salary is from 60 to 65 percent.

Employes in the Navy project do not get regular within-grade (longevity) raises. Instead they advance in pay according to their annual job performance ratings, which give management more control and more flexibility in setting pay.

Navy officials familiar with the test program say it has allowed Uncle Sam to offer applicants salaries that are more competitive with wages in California's high-technology private sector.

Although government salaries for engineers in the test program are still lower than those in industry, the pay rates are higher than for engineers and scientists in all other federal agencies.

Costs of the experimental federal salary program are higher than many officials anticipated. But those costs are offset, officials said, because the government has been hiring -- and keeping -- higher quality scientists and engineers than it generally can under the more rigid civil service pay structure.

Congress and OPM will be evaluating the Navy program over the next few months. After that, the administration may make a pitch to extend the experimental pay-performance system to employes in middle to upper grades in other selected occupations around the country.