A SIMMERING CONFLICT between the intelligence and defense branches of government and parts of the scientific community became several degrees hotter at a session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Adm. Bobby R. Inman, deputy director of the CIA and former director of the National Security Agency, challenged scientists in a wide variety of disciplines to accept a system of voluntary regulation, including pre-publication censorship, or be "washed away by the tidal wave" of public anger.

The controversy has its origins in the obscure field of cryptology. In the past decade, rapid developments in computer technologies, including the development of microprocessors, have led to academic and commercial interest in a field that was once the sole province of governments. With such a large fraction of commercial and financial transactions being conducted through computers, there were new reasons to fear industrial espionage, large- scale embezzlement, the invasion of private medical records and so on. The need to develop secure computer codes, coupled with the newly available technologies, brought many people into the area of research that underlies the making and breaking of secret government codes and ciphers.

Exactly how much of a security threat such research poses can be fully answered only by someone with access to the classified material. Experts in this type of research and in the history of cryptology dispute the degree of danger claimed by Adm. Inman and others in the government. But the country's ability to intercept other countries' communications and to keep its own messages secure is undeniably vital, and intelligence agencies are obviously precluded from presenting evidence to support their claims. The most prudent course may be, therefore, to accept the government's assertions that at least some public cryptology research would harm national security, while keeping an ear tuned to those who warn of governmental excess.

Adm. Inman, however, went further. He stated the government's desire to restrict research in a number of other fields including "computer hardware and software, other electronic gear and techniques, lasers, crop projections and manufacturing procedures." This sweeping but vague list would affect dozens of scientific and engineering disciplines. Justifying it, he said a "hemorrhage" of U.S. technology is heavily responsible for major improvements in Soviet defense capability.

Just how widespread that anxiety is in this administration was evident from the brochure, "Soviet Military Power," issued last fall by the Pentagon. It described the opportunities provided to the Soviet Union by Western scientific methods, including free communication, detailed publications, conferences and symposia and international exchanges. These, it was noted, provide information valuable to the Soviets and therefore damaging to the United States. The trouble is, however, that such practices are also an important means by which U.S. scientific preeminence has been achieved. To place too many restrictions on our successful system because it helps a system crippled by comparable restrictions would be foolish.

The openness of American society is a source of both weakness and strength, and always has been. We have not been terribly good at protecting technological secrets that can sometimes provide a major security edge for many years at very low cost. But the same openness has been responsible for producing those technological advances. The cost of an over-cumbersome system of secrecy restrictions in slowing U.S. scientific and technological progress could turn out to be far greater than the advantage denied to our enemies. Moreover it may simply be impossible to impose--modern science is a thoroughly international endeavor.

This is not to deny that there are valid security concerns that could and should be met. But they seem to us narrower