Academic entrepreneurs lobbying Congres? That's what Sen. Dennis De-Concini (D-Ariz.) says has been going on to set up and get money for a new government research institute that's expected to do a lot of business with academic institutions. And the senator, demanding a political chastity that academe quietly forsook a decade or two ago, wants the Justice Department to investigate.

While richly financed Washington. representatives of the universities respond that there's nobody here but us observers and while Justice ponders whether to round up the usual suspects, the allegations of illicit lobbying in this case ought to be disentangled from the claimed object of the lobbying. For something important is at stake -- namely, the recruitment and focusing of this country's enormous research and educational powers to help some of the poor countries improve their lot.

The object of DeConcini's politically arousing mock rage, the newborn Institute for Scientific and Technological Cooperation, represents a promising let's-try-again effort after many years of, at best, only spotty succes in trying to link research to the problems of economic development. The new thrust is toward helping the developing countries acquire their own research facilities so they can look after their own needs rather than seek assistance from the super-sophisticated science establishments of the industrialized nations. It's worth trying.

Talked about for over a decade, the institute -- with a big push from the administration's recent reorganization of foreign aid -- was passed into law as the central agency for helping developing countries toward do-it-yourself research. Passage, however, was unaccompanied by any money; and DeConcini, who thinks research on economic development is a boondoggle and wants to keep it penniles, has now fastened on the lobbying issue as a pretext for throtting the institute. He's told the Justice Department, on the basis of internal memos and other material that he's collected, that the academics who were hired to plan the institute were in collaboration with unversity researchers in lobbying Congress to approve and finance the new organization.

Furthermore, the senator says, the hanky-panky surrounding the institute even extended to one university's revamping an existing research program to qualify for a slice of the $90 million that the administration is seeking for the institute's first year of operations.

Without going into the sensitive matter of the institute and its university supporters, what can be observed is that DeConcini's storming about academic lobbying has the ring of a Rip Van Winkle excitedly telling the cops that there's gambling in Atlantic City. Aceademe in general, and its scientific sector in particular, long ago became heavily dependent on the U.S. Treasury. And like others federal dependents -- highway builders; aerospace contractors and so forth -- universities are well-represented in Washington to see to it that the government continues to be sensitive and generous to institutions of higher learning. At least a dozen major universities maintain full-time outposts in Washington, and special associations of one sort or another -- for medical schools, land-grant institutions, junior colleges, big research unversities -- are also based in the capital to provide coverage for their members.

While much lip service is paid to the vague line between observing and prodding, the fact of the matter is that universities lobby for their desires with no less fervor or skill than any of the other organized lobbies in Washington.

To the uninitiated, it may look unseemly, and maybe DeConcini is onto something when he claims that the institute planners violated prohibitions against lobbying by the State Department when they huddled with their academic freinds on stirring up support on Capitol Hill.

But that has nothing to do with the merits of this promising new approach to helping the developing countries become self-sufficient in research.