National Science Foundation officials have told several members of Congress that they prefer not to locate the agency's new headquarters in Maryland, heightening the possibility that Arlington's Ballston area will be awarded the project, congressional sources said.

The foundation, at 18th and G streets NW, is looking to move about 1,400 workers from its headquarters and two branch offices in the District into new, leased space.

Localities and developers in the Washington area consider the foundation a prize catch not only because of the expected value of its new lease -- about $12 million to $13 million a year -- but because the foundation annually brings in about 3,500 visiting scientists and other researchers who stay in nearby hotels and eat and shop in the area around the agency.

"It's a prime project, and we'd definitely love to have it here," said William Condo, executive director of the Ballston Partnership, a group of business owners, developers and residents that has helped guide development there. "We think this would be as prestigious as the National Institutes of Health is to Maryland."

Congressional sources say that two proposals for the Ballston area are the front-runners on a "short list" of sites being considered by the foundation and the General Services Administration. Foundation Director Erich Bloch has told Capitol Hill lawmakers that the short list contains no Maryland sites; General Services officials would not comment on Bloch's statements.

Developers Mark Vogel and Ted Lerner proposed a four-acre tract near the Rockville Metro station for the project a few weeks ago, but Joe Burt, the foundation's relocation director, said yesterday that "nothing has changed" recently concerning the agency's short list.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), one of many lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia who have lobbied for the foundation to come to their states, criticized the selection process used by General Services, which is expected to receive developers' final offers on the project this week and announce a winner later this summer.

"GSA has historically been less than responsive in giving Maryland a fair shake and a good look," Mikulski said in a statement. "We are extremely disappointed that Maryland has been excluded from the final selection process."

General Services' guidelines for the project greatly limit the number of possible sites for the foundation. Besides requiring room for up to 400,000 square feet of new office space, General Services is requiring that the foundation's new headquarters be within walking distance of a Metro subway station. The foundation wants to move into its new space in late 1992 or early 1993, officials said.

Near the Ballston station in Arlington, two sites have been offered for the foundation's project: the Evans Co./Cali has proposed a tract at what is now 4200 Ninth St., and the Washington Corp. has submitted a proposal for 600 North Glebe Rd.

Sources say at least one proposal near Union Station in the District is also being considered. General Services has encouraged those associated with the project not to discuss the proposals, forcing developers to guess about the competition.

Robert A. Becker, president of a Ballston travel management company, said the foundation would have a "ripple effect" on the economy of the winning site, creating hundreds of jobs in the service industry.

"What Ballston needs is two or three major tenants like the NSF to give it a personality," Becker said. "This is the type of project that would keep it from being just another bubble on the Metro line."