THE FEDERAL government is in the process of writing legislation to control research on DNA molecules - the material that determines the hereditary characteristics of all known cells. This is a particularly delicate undertaking, because Congress has no experience with regulating basic scientific research and because the kind of research under scrutiny has the potential not only of bringing great good to mankind but also of threatening it with untold harm. So we would like to underline the plea of Dr. Norton Zinder of Rockefeller University to the Senate Health Subcommittee last week that "this be done with extreme care and without haste."

With that in mind, it seems to us that the licensing proposal presented by Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Califano is a useful starting point. Mr. Califano has followed the general outline proposed by an inter-agency committee which urged that federal safety standards be set for the laboratories in which this research is conducted. But he rejected the committee's key recommendation that the federal standards override state and local safety legislation in this field. This, it seems to us, is a serious mistake.

It is not good enough for the federal government to say, as Mr. Califano recommends, that it is setting minimum standards and letting states and local governments set higher ones, if they want to. The federal standards must be sufficiently high to provide adequate safety for all the country if anything should go wrong in the experiemental process; the potential for harm is that great. But if federal standards are that high, there is no sound reason for local governments to drive them higher. When the federal government talks about minimum standards, it almost invites additional regulation by local governments.

There are, as we see it, several dangers in such an invitation. One is that some local governments would create unrealistic standards; the expertise available to the federal government in drafting regulations of this kind is not so readily available to state and local governments. Another is that local governments might erect standards so stringent that scientists could not meet them. Either possibility would drive this kind of research out of institutions located in certain communities and cause a reshuffling of scientists between institutions as they sought more ocngenial regulations. Indeed, it is conceivable that fear of DNA research could produce a series of local regulations that would drive this research out of the institutions best equipped to conduct it and force this work into less qualified institutions or, in the worst possible case, underground.

It seems quite remarkable tha tthe federal government would consider giving local governments so much leeway in handling so delicate a subject when it has denied local option in such matters as regulating that amoung of meat in a package of bacon. This is one area where Congress must exercise that "extreme care" of which Dr. Zinder spoke - extreme care that citizens not only are protected against the harm that DNA research might do but are also assured that this research can continue under the best possisble conditions.