ADVOCATES for AIDS research and for programs to care for AIDS victims have been spectacularly successful. The federal government is now spending more than a billion dollars a year on research and prevention. The arduous and well-established system for approving new drugs has been fundamentally revised so that those drugs with a potential for slowing the AIDS virus have been made available to the public in record time. Congress is about to pass legislation that would authorize expenditure of $600 million a year to help hospitals that treat large numbers of AIDS patients and to fund state programs to provide home-health, hospice and other kinds of care to the ill.

In light of all this progress, why were a thousand AIDS activists -- members of a group called ACT-UP -- blocking traffic, parading through the Rockville and Bethesda buildings of the National Institutes of Health, throwing smoke bombs and conducting sit-ins yesterday? There's nothing wrong with demonstrations or street theater, and there's nothing surprising about the frustration of those who demand a cure for AIDS and want to see progress toward that goal every day. But harassing the very scientists working directly on AIDS research cannot improve the process.

ACT-UP has made a number of charges concerning clinical trials of promising therapies that are carried out by NIH. Essentially the group demands that more drugs be tested, a greater variety of people be accepted for clinical trials and a wider spectrum of advisers be consulted. NIH has responded in the past by increasing the numbers of women, minorities, intravenous drug users and children in tests, by contracting out some work to minority institutions and by involving patients and their advocates in advisory and planning committees. Still, some ACT-UP demands are unrealistic. How can the government promise to test 30 new drugs a year when that many may not have been developed? Why should an outside group determine which cities -- indeed, which neighborhoods within cities -- should be testing centers? How can trial participants always be chosen on the basis of affirmative action when medical histories and the nature of the product being tested are more important?

The AIDS epidemic has strained most everyone's patience, but disruption and unwarranted conflict will only delay a cure.