Listening in on the complaints that officials in industry, labor and government are making about foreign industrial competition, one gets the impression that some of them would rather curse the darkness than light a candle.

Consider, for example, one of the fastest-growing themes in the protectionist camp - namely, that foreign firms are scooping up the results of vast quantities of our taxpayer-financed research and using it to innovate products that outsell domestic goods.

Is that true? You can safely bet your Japanese-made television set that it's true. Which is why the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers charged last year that Japan has reaped $15 billion from the purchase of $1.5 billion of American technical know-how. It's why leaders of the American electronics industry have been pushing for curbs on the export of American scientific and technical knowledge. And it's why the White House has included the export of such knowledge in a recently ordered governmentwide study of what ails industrial innovation in this country.

But before the drumbeat for technological protectionism gets any louder, it would be useful to take note of certain facts concerning foreign mining of American science and technology. Our industrial competitors work hard and systematically at keeping in touch with the output of American laboratories. And we make it extremely easy for them to do so. But in the meantime, there is scarcely on organized American effort to keep abreast of foreign research, which, despite our ethnocentric notions of American scientific supremacy, actually accounts for well over half of the world's scientific and technological output. Furthermore, when it comes to research of industrial value, our seemingly huge budgets are misleading. Half of the government's funds go into military projects, whereas Japan, for instance, devotes no more than 10 percent to that purpose.

In evaluating the calls for protectionism, however, the relevant point isn't who's doing more or less research, since great quantities of its are going on here and abroad. Rather, it's our indolence in matching the organized, serious efforts that many nations make to exploit - as the protectionists correctly contend - American-financed research.

For example, the semigovernmental Japan Trade Center has technically trained representatives posted in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Huston and Chicago. Their duties, according to a spokesman, "are to watch everything in American industry and gather information." The same monitoring role is carried on by representatives of many Japanese firms.

France, which follows a determine policy of keeping in touch will research in the major industrialized nations, keeps six science attaches in Washington, plus one each in Boston, Houston and San Francisco. Principal among their duties is following American science and technology at the laboratory level. The object is to know what's going on long before the rest of the world finds out through the traditionally slow process of scientific publishing.

The embassies of almost all the other industrialized nations are staffed for that purpose, though the intensity of the efforts varies. A staff member of the State Department science office points out, "Most of these people work for their ministries of commerce and industry, not for the foreign ministry, and their job is to watch the industrial area."

It's all open and aboveboard and, in fact, is greatly assisted by the U.S. government National Technical Information Service (NTIS), which offers for sale about 75 percent of all scientific and technical papers produced in the United States. Foreign sales are such a booming business - with Japan the biggest customer - that NTIS has contracted for foreign dealers to handle its publications in Japan, Britain, France and the Netherlands. Foreigners take 10 percent of NTIS sales.It is a unique window on a national research enterprise - immensely valuable, of course, to American researcher, but equally so to foreign competitors. Except for a small organization in the Netherlands, no other country has anything resembling NTIS.

The United States does maintain science attaches at 23 of our embassies. But unlike most of their foreign counterparts here, they're not in the business of collecting scientific and technical data for shipment back home. Rather, they're concerned with "policy matters" ' whatever that means.

The military services, led by a longstanding Navy operation based in London, try to keep in touch with leading scientific centers abroad, but their interests are narrowly defined and are not geared to industrial purposes.

The imbalance in scientific and technological voyeurism is something that American industry is aware of. But with the government indifferent to the problem and pooled monitoring efforts barred by antitrust regulations, few companies do anything about it.

One major exception is General Electric, perhaps the most shrewdly and tightly managed of our big high-technology corporations. Monitoring of foreign science and technology is handled by two GE representatives in Zurich, two in London and one in Tokyo. According to Charles M. Huggins, GE's manager of international programs for corporate research and development, "We assume that 60 per cent of all new science and technology is developed outside the United States."

American campaigners for technological protectionism should think about that.'