FIRST STEPS have now been taken to establish an important regional research group that would operate independently of the local governments in greater Washington - but which could provide the area's officials, business leaders and other residents objective, factual information. Two respected local organizations, the D. C. Municipal Research Bureau and the Washington Center for Metropolitan Studies, are merging. The new institution, tentatively (and clumsily) named the Center for Municipal and Metropolitan Research, would consolidate expertise that up till now has operated under different limitations.

For example, the Research Bureau, under the executive directorship of Philip M. Dearborn, has concentrated on government finances, organization and management and health issues - with an emphasis on the city government. The Washington Center, under the presidency of Atlee E. Shidler, has produced many useful reports on population and economic changes as well as other regional issues.

The governing boards of these organizations have rightly recognized that the increasing dependence of the local governments in this area calls for a shared examination of local issues. And there's much for the new group to address. For example, what effects are population movements having today on the region's markets, or on the costs of public services? And how about a comprehensive determination of water and sewer costs for the area? Or a look at where the city's displaced poorer residents really go when they're bumped by rehabilitation?

The new institution should be able to offer outside advice and research of the non-partisan sort that individual governments do not necessarily share with the private sector. For this project to succeed, however, the consolidated agency will need strong financial support from community groups.