Our call for a National Institutes for the Environment as presented in the Dec. 10 news story "Does Earth Need a Government Institute?" needs clarification.

We want an NIE to do for the health of the environment what the National Institutes of Health does for human health. We seek a mission-oriented federal granting agency to develop environmental sciences in the way that NIH built health sciences after World War II. Few people will deny the value and success of NIH.

Concern that the NIE would "strip what little expertise exists in other federal agencies" only reinforces our argument that the nation is training far too few environmental scientists. But the NIE would actually have the opposite effect. It would produce the new generation of top scientists that these agencies desperately need to do their jobs.

We are calling for a new agency because the balkanization and fragmentation of federal efforts in the environmental sciences has inhibited the development of a coherent national program to seek solutions to complex environmental problems. A new agency is needed unless existing federal granting agencies can be substantially reorganized to meet the environmental challenge on a scale and with a zeal commensurate with the problems.

We are simply asking the nation, can we build a better mousetrap? The study of the NIE concept by the National Academy of Sciences mandated by Congress should help provide the answer.

STEPHEN P. HUBBELL HENRY F. HOWE Co-chairmen, Committee for the National Institutes for the Environment Washington