THE DEFENSE Department says it is consider ing putting a modest amount of money--perhaps $50 million next year--into the design of highly advanced computers. That's significant, but hardly surprising. The Pentagon is one of the great patrons of the arts and sciences in this country. Following its established custom, it sees a menace to the national future--in this case, the chance that the Japanese might develop faster and more intelligent machines. Perhaps the people at the Pentagon also sense a possibility that it is being left behind as the academic laboratories and international companies, with their foreign partnerships, press into new fields.

The Defense Department justly feels a proprietary pride in the computer industry. The first true computer--Eniac, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator--was built in 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania under a military contract to study ballistics. Its designers then went on to build Univac I, the original customer for which was the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Constant encouragement and support from the government, not only the military but civilian programs from space exploration to Social Security, have been crucial to the development of the U.S. computer industry. American manufacturers' heavy breathing about Japan Inc. is not baseless. But to keep some balance in the debate, it's always useful to remember that high technology in this country, and most notably the computer industry, has always had a strong relationship to public purposes and public money.

Regarding the present state of the competition, it is a fair generalization to say that the Americans are still well ahead in basic science while the Japanese have a clear advantage in some areas of manufacturing technique. The Americans fear that the Japanese are going to use their highly protected home market to generate very large resources for research and eventually dominate the industry worldwide. That's possible, if unlikely. But the sharp nudge of competition, and the discovery that some of the Japanese chips are superior to their American counterparts, is not necessarily unhealthy. Among other things it reminds public officials that, even in a time of much budget-cutting, there is a strong public interest in a steady flow of funds to advanced technology.

Is it desirable to have those funds come from the Pentagon? It's not ideal. The Pentagon always likes to stamp paper Top Secret and lock it carefully away. But there's a quicksilver quality to science that makes it hard to control precisely. On the historical record, you'd have to say that the Pentagon has frequently been more of a benefactor to basic science than it ever really intended.