IN A MESSAGE he sent to Congress this week, the president pointed out that "despite the centrality of science and technology in our lives, the federal government has rarely articulated a science and technology policy for the future. This message," he said, "sets forth that policy."

Well, it does offer some policy themes, plus an overall view of what to do about the care, feeding and application of this country's research-and-development enterprise. The message urges the continuation of efforts to rejuvenate basic research from a decade of hard times, because, as he stresses, new scientific knowledge helps spawn technologies for dealing with serious national problems-energy, health care, defense, and so forth. It also makes a sensible case for dividing research responsibilities between government and the private sector.

These are commendable ambition, but we're left wondering at the once-over-lightly-if at all-treatment given to some of the real aches and pains that afflict this nation's R&D.

For example, basic research is produced mainly in universities, but the bane of academic science is a scarcity of job slots for young Ph.D.s-thanks to a tenure jam that originated in the go-go faculty expansions of the space era. On this central point, the president's message simply states that he's asked the National Science Foundation "to investigate the need for special programs to support young scientists." That's welcome news, but it's not a policy.

Neither is there any policy in the message's skimpy discussions of another core issue: the criteria for financial support of research and development. Should these activities grow at a set annual pace?Should they command a given slice of the gross national product? How much is the right amount for science? there is, of course, no way to arrive at a precise answer. But the subject merits serious attention in a "science and technology policy."

Finally, as the scientific enterprise matures and, at the same time, becomes more expensive to operate, science policymakers are going to have to respond to a problem that they understandably prefer to put off: Should federal research funds be concentrated in a relatively small number of elite institutions, or should a politically attractive but scientifically impractical spread-the wealth philosophy prevail?

Mr. Cater, more than any of his recent predecessors, has spelled out his administration's thoughts on a subject that rarely receives the attention it deserves. As the opportunities present themselves, he needs to fill in some of the gaps in this first effort.