AS THE United States begins raising funds abroad for the biggest scientific research machine of the 1990s, the division of labor is going to be interesting. The Superconducting Supercollider is being designed to look more deeply into the fundamental structure of matter than anyone has yet been able to do -- at a price estimated at $8 billion. Since the results would be available to all the world, Congress has suggested that other rich countries ought to contribute to the very substantial cost of this gigantic device.

The Supercollider is the gigantic accelerator to be built in a 54-mile underground ring near Waxahachie, Tex. Henson Moore, the deputy secretary of energy, is just back from a trip to Asia in which, among other things, he was sounding out the Japanese and the Koreans about contributions. They would very probably not be in cash but in kind -- that is, components. The question is who supplies the equipment at the highest levels of technology -- whose industries, to put it bluntly, get public money to develop their capabilities to these unprecedented levels -- and who pays for the run-of-the-mill gear.

The key components will be the superconducting magnets. The most advanced manufacturers in this esoteric field are currently in Japan and Italy. But American aerospace companies, perhaps in response to the declining defense budgets, are actively interested. In one case an American aircraft maker is going into a joint venture with an Italian firm that has been building magnets for European accelerators.

The House has passed a bill that, in the absence of final legislation, the Department of Energy is using as a policy guide. It says that between a fifth and a third of the $8 billion should be provided from abroad, but at least half of every major component -- for example, the array of magnets -- is to be made here. That's fair enough -- but it remains to be seen whether those limits will be consistent with the interests and intentions of the donors. The principle of foreign help is entirely reasonable, since foreign scientists would be invited to use the machine. The Koreans, who are anxious to elevate their scientific capacities, have been more forthcoming than the Japanese in the preliminary talks.

But here in the United States the political support for the Supercollider is generated less by a passion for particle physics than by considerations of national prestige and, naturally, the prospect of all that money for contractors. This country is not the only one in which it is mainly prestige and the pork barrel that build government support for big science. The progress of this enormous project will be a revealing test of national attitudes toward scientific cooperation.