Engineers are people who take laboratory curiosities that scientists discover and turn them into useful technologies.

But in the opinion of Nam P. Suh, the National Science Foundation's controversial, fast-moving new assistant director for engineering, American engineers aren't doing enough to identify and develop the curiosities that will pay off in the form of technology that keeps the United States commercially competitive in the 21st century.

Therefore, Suh is reorganizing the NSF's Directorate for Engineering with the goal of breaking through some of the ossified traditions of the nation's engineering schools and leading them to new subjects of research and new ways of doing research -- especially through closer collaboration with private industry.

Early word of Suh's plans triggered worried reactions from some engineering schools that feared their normal grant pipelines were in jeopardy. Suh said he has been meeting with deans of engineering schools, adding that "when they hear what we're actually doing, they're very supportive."

"NSF is one of the few agencies charged by law with making long-term investments in the future," said Suh, a professor of mechanical engineering who came to the agency from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in October. "We are to provide for the economic well-being of the nation."

The NSF, which is seeking a $1.57 billion budget for 1986, is the government's chief agency for supporting non-medical, non-military research, nearly all of which is done at colleges and universities. Suh's engineering program is asking for $170 million.

The reorganization is in response to a variety of recommendations in recent years that government do more to reinvigorate and redirect American engineering. There have been moves in Congress, for example, to create an independent National Engineering Foundation.

Last spring the House Science and Technology Committee agreed that the effort should come from the NSF, a decision that Lewis M. Branscomb, chairman of the agency's policy-making National Science Board, called "a turning point in NSF history."

In August Edward A. Knapp resigned as NSF director and was replaced by Erich Bloch, who, as an IBM vice president, was the foundation's first director to come from private industry rather than academia or a government laboratory.

Two months later the Senate confirmed President Reagan's appointment of Suh, who had won a reputation as a facilitator of industry-academic programs at MIT.

Suh lost no time reorganizing. He appointed two task forces to devise the specific actions. Both reported back in December. The changes -- abolishing all four divisions and one office and creating five new divisions and one office -- were in effect by the end of January.

Old programs that were grouped to parallel traditional academic specialties within engineering were broken up and regrouped in a way that more naturally fits active research areas. Three divisions comprise these old programs. In addition there are two new divisions focusing on advanced concepts.

One will try to develop a broad base of scientific knowledge that in such areas as computer-aided engineering design, advanced robotics and methods of integrating automation into manufacturing systems.

The other new division will support fundamental research in such new technologies as genetic engineering and devices for aiding the handicapped as well as in old but neglected "critical" areas, such as methods of mitigating the hazards of earthquakes.

Among Suh's goals is to find ways to make mature industries, such as steel and rubber, more competitive in the world.

"The reason these industries are mature," Suh said, "is that there hasn't been any innovation for a long time."

All Suh's division directors have been made acting division directors.

"They have three months to prove they can do the job well," Suh said.