An $11 million-a-year grants program at the Environmental Protection Agency has become the center of a tug-of-war between the agency's budget officers, who say it isn't necessary, and the agency's scientists, who say it is.

The squabble is about the exploratory research grants program, which funds long-term studies of new environmental questions, but it has become a symbol of larger concerns over whether budget cuts are undercutting basic research at one of the government's most science-oriented agencies.

Agency scientists call this program a "fundamental research" program that helps identify and lay the groundwork for studies on environmental problems likely to become more vexing in the future.

For example, work conducted years ago provided a comprehensive research plan on acid rain and the initial scientific information on hazardous air pollutants, both of which have since become major issues in the fight over reauthorizing the Clean Air Act.

In a Feb. 17 memorandum, EPA Comptroller C. Morgan Kinghorn told Courtney Riordan, head of research and development, that he wanted Riordan's staff to "determine what the exact funding requirements are to close out existing exploratory research grants."

Until this was done, Kinghorn wrote, the agency would not commit or obligate any fiscal 1983 funds for the program.

Kinghorn denies that EPA intends to abolish the program, saying that the memo was designed simply to get a handle on existing grants and their expiration dates. The agency generally funds grants for two years, with an optional one-year extension.

But officials in the research and development division say Kinghorn's office is marshaling the information it needs to end the program. The budget office "doesn't believe exploratory research does us any good," said one senior official in the office. "We say it does."

In fiscal 1984 budget documents submitted to Congress, the agency says it has been able, through "management changes," to cut all personnel in the grants program and to "eliminate the strategic assessment function."

That part of the program is responsible for preparing forecasts of environmental trends, which the agency uses to make research decisions. It also came up with the government's five-year research plan on acid rain.

According to the budget documents, the agency intends to align the program with environmental research being done by the National Science Foundation. The 1984 budget proposes to start by transferring $4 million to the NSF.

Agency scientists say that NSF has little interest in taking over the program. "It's more applied than they want to be," said one. The NSF traditionally has focused on basic, rather than applied research.

Riordan said no decision had been made on what to do with the long-term research program, and that his staff was putting together the information Kinghorn had requested. But Riordan added that he also was putting together a strong budget justification for the program.

Kinghorn's memo raised alarms on Capitol Hill, where some members saw it as further evidence of a change of focus in EPA research activities. "The key thing is they've changed their whole research program to make it regulatory-centered," said one Senate aide.

In its fiscal 1983 budget documents, the agency said it had changed the program to make activities "more immediately useful to the regulatory program. Research not directly linked to regulatory needs has been eliminated."

The administration's 1984 budget request for research at the EPA is $208 million, a 37 percent drop from the figures for 1982.