NIMBLE AS EVER in courting the Washington bankroll, the legendary Grant Swinger, director of the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds, remains optimistic in the shadow of the Reagan-Stockman budget-cutting spree.

"Adaptation is the key," he explained during a change-of-planes break on the torrid international conference circuit. "For example," he said, "we've revived an old activity that we had to mothball during the Carter administration."

"What's that?" I asked.

"The Institute for the Resolution of Conflict Through violence. That was a big one during the '50s and '60s, and now it's back again with big bucks from the Pentagon as part of Project Strongarm."

"Strongarm?"

"It's part of the new program called Alternatives to Negotiations. Can't tell you too much about it, but I'd like to point out that there's lots of new life in some of the old stuff, too. Like strategic studies. You know, if we do this and then they do that, and then we do this or that, what if they ... and on and on. We thought it was played out, but it's got a Russian angle, and that's indispensable these days. We learned that the hard way."

"How?"

"When we struck out with our proposal for an oil-solidification project."

"Oil solidification?"

"Remember how it was with Carter?" Swinger asked. "Anything went in energy. They were bonkers on coal liquefaction, so we figured we'd take the next step and ... but, like I said, no Russian angle. So, we dumped it and we regrouped around MX."

"Isn't MX resolved as a subject for research?" I asked.

"Oh, no, that's really just beginning. This latest decision is going 1o produce new panels, commissions, conferences, reports -- it's open-ended, even though there's nothing new to be said. But even if we don't get another grant out of MX, we can't complain. We had a good five years on trucks versus trains, midget subs, airplanes, shelters in the desert and then, of course, all kinds of combinations of them. We were putting in overtime, and then just when it looked like the end was in sight, one of our bright fellows came up with a blockbuster of an idea that brought another load of loot from the Pentagon."

"What was that?"

"He raised the possibility of doing nothing -- no MX, so nothing to hide. That was there all along, but it takes a special kind of mind to spot it in all the policy clutter. So, we went back to the beginning and studied doing nothing. We started with a big conference, broke up into workshops and soon we'll have panel reports to send out for review, prior to reconvening the conference. We're going to do the same thing with the B-1, battleships, rapid deployment, the draft, chemical warfare and AWACS. It's a new dimension in policy studies."

"What else?"

"Japan. That's shaping up a big one. When you can get the Reagan crowd to take its mind off the Russians, you can get them to worry about Japan. We're hitching that to genetic engineering, and we're working on a pony-size chicken. We call it Mega-Chicken. We've got to beat the Japanese to it. We're also into 'quality circles,' whatever they are, but, clearly, they're hot."

"I see."

"These things come and go," Swinger pointed out. "Remember civil defense? It was thriving for a time, but then the bottom dropped out. The same with pollution, ecology, population control, oceanography and on and on."

"Any mileage left in the social sciences?" I asked.

''We used to do very well with poverty, but there's not much in that now," Swinger replied. "We're under contract to the school lunch program to study how little you can feed kids before malnutrition hits. We're trying to get this tied in with a sludge-conversion project, but the Reagan people tend to be slow in approving these things. Unless, as I said, there's a Russian angle."

"Then it looks as though these are very different times for the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds."

"Not as much as you might think. Actually, there's more money floating around then ever for our kind of work, but you've got to be able to pitch your case to the politics of the moment."

"Do you think you'll ever run out of grantable subjects?"

"Not likely," Swinger replied as his flight was called.

"Bu the way," I said, "where are you going?"

"First to a conference on technological lag," he said, "and then to a conference on terrorism. Believe me, we're busy."