Understand that is is the ability to conduct and use research that increasingly separates the rich from the poor countries, and you have the key to next week's U.N. Conference on Science and Technology for Development.

Though three years in the works, and the subject of five large and controversy-filled preparatory meetings, the conference (Aug. 20-31 in Vienna) has shared the experience of many of the U.N.'s mega-conferences on economic-development - general indifference on the part of the American press and listless participation by the U.S. government. Two weeks ago, for example, members of the U.S. delegation complained at a congressional hearing that the U.S. position for the conference still hadn't been worked out. Meanwhile, the State Department's Jean Wilkowski, who is in charge of this country's preparations for the meeting, explained at a press briefing that the delay was akin to "leaving your tax returns for the last minute."

What really accounts for the U.S. delay, however, is the realization that in a world of scarcity and competition, laboratories are the new gold mines. And, though the conference itself is shaping up as another U.N.-sponsored rhetorical pillow fight - replete with the standard counter-conference - the difficulty in devising a U.S. position simply reflects divergent views on how openhanded to be in exporting the capacity to turn knowledge into wealth. Thus, the American electronics industry finds it advantageous to set up assembly lines in countries where labor is cheap, but is nervous about those countries achieving the scientific independence that would permit them to go into business for themselves. This concern has even led some electronics chiefs to express doubts about the advisability of permitting foreign students free choice of graduate science and engineering studies in American universities.

What disturbs the developing countries - and makes the developed ones concerned about diminishing their own present advantages - is that science and technology are overwhelmingly concentrated in the rich nations. As Colin Norman points out in a paper recently published by the Worldwatch Institute, "Knowledge and Power: The Global Research and Development Budget," the world's research and development resources are predominantly aimed at "meeting the political, economic and social needs of the rich industrial countries." R&D spending in the United States this year amounts to $200 per person. "In contrast," Norman writes, "most Latin American nations will spend less than $5 per person, and the poorer countries of Africa and Asia will be able to afford less than $1 per person."

In response to these numbers and the complaints associated with them, the developed nations' technological protectionists are asking, "What do they want us to do for them?"

The answers, of course, vary by country and stage of development, but common to all of them is the conviction that some strong measure of a home-based science and technology are a necessity for a country to get along in the modern world; in short, that the present system of faraway American and European laboratories trying to serve the needs of the poor nations - to the extent that they do try - is insufficient.

What the developing nations want is help in acquiring a wealth-making capacity that's now concentrated in a very few nations. And that's why the research have-nots are very keen about next week's U.N. Conference on Science and Technology for Development, while the haves are of mixed mind.