The language is loftier, but in Congress high technology is like almost everything else; it comes in pork barrels.

The most recent example lies in the National Science Foundation section of the big HUD-independent agencies appropriations bill now awaiting action in the Senate.

The NSF is like a lot of agencies; it has been squeezed in the Reagan administration.

This year, however, President Reagan said in his State of the Union address that high technology was crucial to the nation's long-term economic future, and he backed that declaration by asking Congress for an 18 percent budget increase for NSF for the coming fiscal year.

Congress sensed a good thing and responded enthusiastically, the assorted interest groups gathered 'round, and high tech became low pork in a flash.

First came the House, where the best grant program tends to be the one that goes to the maximum possible number of congressional districts.

The House Appropriations Committee first added $23 million to Reagan's request, lifting NSF's budget from $1.292 billion to $1.315 billion, then tacked on two set-asides of 3 percent each for small colleges.

The stated reason was, as such reasons always are, unassailable.

"The Foundation has not sufficiently supported undergraduate research and the committee hopes that this new legislative thrust will redress that shortcoming," the committee said.

But an Appropriations Committee staff member suggested there may have been a second reason as well.

"Any member with a small college in his district is for the new provisions," he confided.

And large colleges plus such groups as the American Association for the Advancement of Science have for now succeeded in setting aside the two set-asides in the Senate, in part on grounds that the government aid ought to go where the best research is done, which they say is often in bigger schools.

As the House committee wrote and the House approved the appropriations bill, $15 million was reserved for "high technology instrumentation to be allocated for new research initiatives, laboratory development and technology instruction delivery."

In addition it was ordered that not less than 3 percent of appropriations for research and related activities be granted to two- and four-year colleges, and another 3 percent to faculty members at institutions that don't grant PhDs.

"The committee has included this language in recognition of the significant proportion of scientists, mathematicians and engineers awarded PhD. degrees who receive their training at small, predominantly undergraduate institutions," the committee report said.

No one seems able to recall who thought up the set-asides, but Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minn.) is one who supports them. He disputes the idea that small colleges were just trying to solve their financial problems under the high-tech banner. "Greed would not be on the side of the 3 percenters," he said. "My judgment is that the amount is very modest, very small and very appropriate."

During the House subcommittee hearings, one witness, Jon W. Fuller, president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, argued convincingly for special provisions for small liberal arts schools, including Oberlin in Ohio, Albion in Michigan, Lawrence in Wisconsin, Grinnell in Iowa and Macalester in Minnesota.

"If you look at PhDs in science, you will find the colleges on this list and other colleges much like them are right at the top in science ," Fuller said."In almost any index, Oberlin College comes out right at the top in terms of production of scientists. That is over the last 50 or 60 years, and it is true today."

Sabo said small schools always lose out in the competition at the National Science Foundation for research and equipment money. "I just think it was crucial that they got this money," he said.

In the Senate, however, a different view has prevailed. The two earmarkings were among several killed in Jake Garn's (R-Utah) subcommittee last week, at his recommendation. "Garn does not like set-asides, period," chief clerk Wallace G. Berger explained.

Berger, a former chief scientist for a high-tech company, said "smaller colleges are oriented toward teaching, not research," and "the foundation's role is support for research, not colleges."

The Senate concentrated at the policy level, Berger explained. Garn and the rest of his subcommittee felt the foundation should have jurisdiction over the awarding of grants.

"If the best work is coming out of Stanford and MIT, we want to fund the best research," Berger said. "It may not be good social policy, but if you're looking to winning the next Nobel prize, or just keeping up, then you've got to reward merit."

Besides, he said, "budgeting is not supposed to be equitable, it's supposed to be effective." The full Senate Appropriations Committee, which met Tuesday, also left out all set-asides.

It was welcome news to Albert H. Teich, who heads science policy studies at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Teich had complained that the set-asides followed a bad precedent set last year when Congress approved set-asides for small business research and development.

"Basically science works as a meritocracy where excellence is rewarded," Teich said. "What they're doing on the Hill with these new 3 percent set-asides is creating a subsidy that is in conflict with the overall goal of doing the best research. It is not an efficient way to spend R&D money.

"They might not seem like much but they can eat up a large chunk of R&D money, which is for research, not education. Let the small schools get money from other parts of the federal budget."

The bill now goes to the full Senate, then to a conference committee. The small vs. large college issue will have to be threshed out there.