The operation is one of the boldest in the history of eye surgery.

The surgeon makes a series of at least eight deep cuts all around the cornea, the eye's clear window, to change the eye's shape.

Four thousand nearsightedness Americans have already had this "radical keratotomy," and most, so it's claimed, have been able to quit using glasses or contact lenses to correct their nearsightedness.

An estimated 4,000 or more will have it done this year and another 10 million persons with moderate to severe nearsightedness are candidates for the surgery.

Still, officials at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) think the rush to this new operation is premature because they're not convinced of its safety. NIH's National Eye Institute (NEI) has started a $2.4 million, five-year project to test the operation's safety and effectiveness on 480 patients at eight major medical centers.

This has sparked one of the angriest surgical controversies in years. Representatives of about 300 eye surgeons who do the operation appeared on the NIH campus yesterday to denounce the testing program as "dangerous" and "wasteful of public dollars." They contended that they have already proved that the operation works, and that the NIH study will be done largely by university surgeons inexperienced in this operation.

Backing the protesters were a score of patients who have had the operation, including Rep. Eugene Johnston (R-N.C.) who had it on both eyes in the past six months.

He said his results are "wonderful," and he wears glasses now only for reading. The operation does not affect the changes in the shape of the lens of the eye that makes many people over 40 wear reading glasses or bifocals.

"The operation is successful. It works," Johnston said, and NIH should at least incorporate all the results so far to cut the cost of its study.

But NEI officials said at a news conference before the hearing that so far they have not seen enough data to satisfy them that the operation works and is safe. They promise to study any new facts and make a further statement in a few weeks.

Protesting eye surgeons told mostly of their own cases yesterday, rather than presenting overall national data.

"There's not going to be much data presented," Dr. William Myers of Southfield, Mich., the surgeon who operated on Johnston, told Dr. Carl Kupfer, NEI director.

The fighting really began two years ago when Soviet eye surgeon Svyatoslav Fyodorov visited the United States and began showing eye surgeons how he had adapted a discarded Japanese procedure to make the operation as it is today.

NEI officials and most of the country's 10,000 eye surgeons, as represented by the American Academy of Opthalmology, expressed serious reservations. But a growing group of eye doctors listened to Fyodorov and went to Moscow to watch him work.

Dr. Ronald Schachar of Denison, Tex., said yesterday he has operated on about 500 eyes. He said from 70 to 96 percent of the patients "can go without glasses," depending on whether their nearsightedness is severe or moderate. He said many, such as pilots and firemen, were virtually unable to work effectively before.

Kupfer said that the other protesting eye doctors' data are incomplete and could be concealing some harmful results, including patients whose eyes get worse, not better, after the surgery.