IN AN OTHERWISE sparse season for new government activities, President Carter's proposed Institute for Technological Cooperation commands notice not only for its rarity, but also for its sound intent -- plus a few minor design problems that Congress might examine. The institute, which would be one of several components of a revamped foreign-aid organization, is a product of high hopes for and dissatisfaction with the performance of science and technology as instruments of economic development. The once-heady illusions of research producing shortcuts to economic improvement long ago gave way to the realization that scientific techniques and advanced know-how cannot work development miracles.

Nonetheless, it's been found that, when prudently employed, they can make valuable contributions. A major difficulty, however, has been that, while our foreign-aid programs have found utility in "quick-fix" research, they have failed to develop durable congenial relationships with the types of long-term inquiries that hold the prospects for really big payoffs. Furthermore, it has also become evident that high-technology research and development are often poorly suited to the needs and capacities of the poorer nations.

An attractive solution, which has been gestating for over a decade, would be to insulate a major part of aid-related research from day-to-day demands, while simultaneously assisting the developing countries in acquiring theur own research resources. In brief outline, that's what the institute would do -- and we commend Mr. Carter for exempting this overdue innovation from what is, by and large, a budget of no new starts.

The main difficulty that we see -- in company with Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III (D-III.) and Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) -- is the thinness of the bureaucratic insulation around the proposed institute. In the administration's formulation, it would be just another part of a big foreign-aid organization. Though presidentially appointed, and assisted by an outside advisory council, the director and the institute would be subordinate parts of the very same enterprise whose track record inspires so little confidence in regard to the utilization and promotion of research.

Given Mr. Carter's penchant for packing as many activities under as few roofs as possible, we see little prospect for reviving the original concept of a free-standing research organization. But, between autonomy -- which brings its own problems -- and submergence, there are are variety of organizational arrangements. Prominent among them is the Stevenson-Brown proposal for equipping the institute with a small, but high-powered board -- with authority over expenditures -- that might help protect programs and budgets against the sort of short-sighted depredations that have frequently stunted foreign-aid research.

The proposed institute is -- apart from this objection -- so well formulated and potentially of such great value to the needs of the developing nations that it merits protection against the very problem that inspired its creation.