The federally chartered National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, until now concentrated on the East Coast, will build a new conference center in Southern California with $26 million in private gifts.

The academies, the most prestigious organizations of scientists in America, study pressing problems in science, engineering and health for the president and Congress. In addition, the academies have their own research agendas.

The new western facility, to be built adjacent to the University of California at Irvine by early 1987, will work on the full range of studies with special attention to four subjects:

*The health of science and technology in the United States, especially technical education and training.

*Issues of technology transfer -- the exchange of information from research labs to U.S. corporations, and the sometimes unwelcome exchange of information between U.S. labs and foreign governments.

*International cooperation in science, particularly in the Pacific rim nations such as Japan, China and so on.

*Ethical and social issues in science, technology and medicine.

Until now, the organization has done almost all its work in its Washington building, with some at its smaller summer facility at Woods Hole, Mass. But Academies President Frank Press and Arnold Beckman, chairman of SmithKline Beckman Corp., have often discussed a Beckman contribution to the Academies. Beckman was specially interested in making it easier for West Coast scientists to participate in the academies' work.

The no-strings-attached gifts to the academies include $20 million from Beckman -- $9 million for construction, $8 million for staff and maintenance, and $3 million for programs -- and a $6 million site, completely landscaped, from the Irvine Company, a development firm owned mostly by chairman David Bren.

The National Academy of Science was chartered by Congress in 1863 to "investigate, examine, experiment and report upon any subject of science and art" requested by the federal government.

HAPPY 4OTH . . . The National Technical Information Service began life as a wartime agency charged with grabbing secret technical documents from the enemy and interrogating prisoners of war who possessed technical information. Last week it celebrated its 40th anniversary, by now the world's largest holder and disseminator of specialized technical reports.

Director Joseph Caponio noted that document number 0000001 in his archive records the interrogation of a captured German chemist. Since that interview in 1945, the agency has had half a dozen name changes, but it has continued to accumulate technical information. There are now about 1.5 million titles of technical documents at NTIS, he said.

Most are reports about research or development work done under contract with the government. Many are never published in standard scientific journals but are nevertheless important to researchers in industry, the military and other parts of the federal establishment.

The NTIS headquarters in Springfield ships out about 25,000 items per day.

NTIS has also acquired the Center for the Utilization of Federal Technology, which works to get federal research into the hands of corporations for development. One recent success was licensing five companies to produce a test for antibodies to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) developed at the National Institutes of Health. The government is expected to gain several million dollars per year in royalties from the test.