In a rare act for a federal civil servant, Gene I. Browning has resigned from his $44,000-a-year job at the Merit Systems Protection Board because he had "absolutely nothing to do, week after week, month after month."

Browning, a 20-year veteran of the federal bureaucracy at age 43, said virtually all activity has ceased in his Office of Merit Systems Review and Studies since a new director was installed by the Reagan administration last October.

The research office, created along with the merit board by the Carter administration in 1979 to scrutinize abuses in government personnel practices, frequently criticized Reagan administration policies in 11 studies over the last two years on topics ranging from sexual harassment to bureaucratic whistle blowers.

But in the six months since Kenneth L. Foran became director, Browning said, the office published only two reports, both of which were completed before Foran arrived.

"Your stewardship . . . has been devastating," Browning said in a resignation letter to Foran last week. "No studies have been initiated, our resources continue to dwindle and, for the most part, our staff is idle, including you as you while away the hours with your five daily newspapers."

Browning, who was contracts manager for the research office, told Foran he had frequently complained "about the fact that I had no work to do. I have not had one substantive assignment since October, 1982. The only assignments I have had since your arrival have been ordering supplies, equipment, furniture, books, magazines, periodicals and furniture polish for your office."

After consulting two doctors about his growing anxiety over the lack of meaningful work, Browning wrote, he decided "to escape this daily prison of gloom."

He said in an interview that he will pursue business opportunities in Florida. "I'm the only one in the office who can afford to quit," he said. "The others need the job."

Foran, an attorney from Alexandria, did not return calls soliciting his comments yesterday.

Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the merit board, said a 16 percent budget cut forced it to shift resources away from the research office to increase the number of hearings on employe grievances, which have piled up behind the appeals of 10,000 fired air traffic controllers. He said the research office staff was cut from 21 to 14.

"Admittedly, some people in that office have been frustrated and not utilized properly," Anderson said. "But they have been working on an agenda."

Richard Redenius, the merit board's managing director, said the research office's work is "cyclical." He said several new studies recently were ordered on government layoffs, employe appeals, and personnel actions and attitudes. But Browning maintained that little work has been done on them and that some are extensions of previous unpublished reports.

Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) said she believes the White House is trying to stifle potential criticism. "The office could get in big trouble stepping on the toes of people who have come into power," she said. "It would look really crude to get rid of it, so you put someone in charge and gut it from the inside."

Anderson acknowledged that the merit board recently ordered "some toning down" of a critical study of its sister agency, the Office of Personnel Management. But, he said, "no substantive changes were made."

Earlier studies estimated that sexual harassment in government cost taxpayers $90 million a year in lower morale and productivity, reported criticism that managers displayed favoritism in handing out salary bonuses and said many federal workers failed to report illegal or wasteful activity because they feared reprisals or felt nothing would be done.