The election year message from the White House to the populous sci-tech community is that Jimmy Carter is the savior: that Nixon-Ford nearly wrecked American science, but that Carter has restored it to health.

For what it tells about Carter's performance in an area in which he can't wholly blame reverses on Congress and fate, the claim is worth examining, because science policy and budgeting constitute a microcosm that is relatively free and clear for the exercise of presidential will.

On money and symbolism, heartfelt matters in the scientific community, Carter has diligently persisted with a healing policy inherited from the Ford administration. Nixon trampled the science-government relationship, petulantly cutting both budgets and social relations with the elders of the community. Ford, in his short-lived presidency, decisively reserved that course, contrary to ill-tempered allegations in the 1980 Democratic platform and by Carter aides. Under Ford, research spending was raised above the inflation rate, and science advice, banished by Nixon, was restored to the White House, as were cordial relations with academic science.

The Carter performance in these matters has basically been to provide more of the same, though not quite as much money as his science adviser, Frank Press, has been trumpeting to the scientific community. Carter's repeated sleight-of-hand with research budgets recently provoked Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson (D-Ill.) to confront Press at a hearing with charges that last month's White House announcement of a big boost in research spending comes down merely to restoring part of the money that Carter cut out in his grandstanding March revisions of the January budget. Kind words and promises for research are plentiful at the White House, Stevenson said -- echoing a spreading lament in the scientific community -- but "I don't find that commitment reflected in the [budget] figures."

Since science is a wonderously expansible enterprise, no amount will ever suffice for existing and aspiring practitioners. But the Carter claim of having financially rescued research from Nixon-Ford neglect collides with the genuine cries for help from many government-supported research centers. Colleagues of Richard Atkinson, who recently left the directorship of the National Science Foundation, say a spur to his departure was the growing disparity between the administration's rhetoric and its budget concerning research.

On policy initiatives, science adviser Press reels off long lists of adminstration accomplishments, ranging from his marriage-broker role between university and automotive researchers to his pilgrimages to foreign lands that seek to tune in to American research activities.

But what's coming into forcus as the dominant political pattern in science and technology is that the big and important initiatives originate in Congress. Thus, last month's congressional enactment of a fast-stepping, Appollo-style commitment to the development of fusion power -- specifying a $1-billion-a-year, 20-year drive -- is a congressional product with late, tag-along administration participation.

Similarly, in recent months, the National Science Foundation has been hastily reorganizing itself to pay more attention to schools of engineering, whose general backwardness is seen as a serious weak point in American industrial performance. The foundation, however, got moving on this long-known, persistently neglectled problem only after Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to establish a separate foundation to support engineering research and training.

Congressional dominance -- to the accompaniment of White House passivity -- extends to biomedical research. This has always been a field of keen legislative interest, and the Carter performance here is little different from that of his predecessors. But for all the recent boasts of resurrecting research, Carter's main thrust in health has been directed toward holding down spending at the National Institutes of Health. Meanwhile, it's the Senate that's the source of a proposed major change -- apparently en route to passage -- that may shake up biomedical politics: the creation of a presidentially appointed supercouncil atop all the billions in research at the Department of Health and Human Services. Carter's most interesting science-related proposal -- a new institute for foreign-aid research -- was politically bungled by adminstration lobbyists and was quietly dropped.

In science policy, where politics and tradition allow presidents considerable freedom, Carter has combined loud claims with small moves. American science has gained strength during his presidency and, in many respects, those small changes have been beneficial.

But after 3 1/2 years of Carter science policy, what's evident is that he's an engine tuner, not a master builder. Similar conclusions have been reached about his performance in economics, defense and down the line of national interests. The difference with science policy is that he was free to do it his way -- and apparently that's what he's done.