A band of influential senators has quietly mapped a plan to force the Pentagon to give colleges and universities in their home states a total of $55.6 million for research and construction while bypassing the usual competitive process.

Led by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), they have attempted since last fall to circumvent the normal channels for awarding research funds. And they may make a major move as early as today during the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the fiscal 1986 "urgent supplemental appropriations" bill.

A seven-sentence amendment has been drafted to direct Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to take money out of various military accounts and give it to specified colleges and universities. If the amendment is approved by the full committee, adopted by the full Senate and House and signed into law, the Pentagon would have no choice but to proceed with what one senator critical of the awards has called "pork barrel science."

Weinberger and at least two national educational organizations have been fighting the effort. They contend that awarding the contracts without competition would turn the military research program into a pork barrel, in which the colleges and universities with the most political clout, not the most capability, would win.

Early this month, Weinberger wrote to seven senators at the forefront of the battle, saying that disbursing research money "without merit competition" would "jeopardize" the "preeminence" that American colleges and universities have achieved through competition. The Association of American Universities and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges have made similar arguments in bulletins sent to their members.

The seven senators are D'Amato, Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) and defense appropriations subcommittee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose staff drafted the amendment that will be taken up today. The seven signed a letter to Weinberger in February demanding that he comply with instructions in the defense appropriations conference report for fiscal 1986 and apportion funds to the institutions shown above.

In addition to those funds, another $1 million covered by the draft amendment would go for research contracts to Oregon Graduate Center, in the home state of Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.). On top of the total $55.6 million in research awards that would be mandated under the amendment, Hatfield has pressed the Pentagon to award $10 million in research contracts to Floating Point Systems, an Oregon firm, for a super computer to be operated at Cornell University in D'Amato's home state.

The money that would pay for the noncompetitive contracts is scattered in the fine print of the fiscal 1986 defense authorization bill. For example, the $2 million for the University of Kansas, in Dole's state, would come from the budget line called "Military Disease Hazards Technology, Army."

D'Amato gave birth to the $55.6 million draft amendment last October. During a meeting of the defense appropriations subcommittee, he sought to require that $29.5 million from a fund known as the University Research Initiative go to his alma mater, Syracuse University in New York, for an advanced computer engineering complex. Senators balked at this request.

Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-Vt.) said, "I am an alumnus of Syracuse University and I oppose it! I want that clearly understood by all the piranha in this room!"

Later in the meeting, however, the subcommittee earmarked $12 million for Syracuse from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency account. Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), an engineer of the compromise, observed, "Twelve million dollars . . . still is a very large sum of money, but in contrast to $29.5 million it is not that large."

Since October, other senators and House members have followed D'Amato's lead and tried to carve money from the Pentagon budget for colleges and universities in their states. Two days after the subcommittee's $12 million Syracuse decision, D'Amato introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill earmarking $32.1 million for projects at Rochester, Northeastern and Nevada, and for a $4 million research and development project in South Carolina that called for participation by the University of South Carolina.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) is ranking minority member of the subcommittee responsible for the bill to which the amendment was attached.

Since then, the Syracuse allocation has been something of a lightning rod, focusing the debate. Weinberger so far has refused to give the $12 million to Syracuse on the basis of language in a committee report. In response, backers are trying -- with the amendment scheduled for consideration today -- to force his hand.

Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) last year tried to delete the $12 million for Syracuse from the joint resolution continuing money for the Pentagon, declaring: "Congress has no business inserting language in a defense bill, or any other bill, which instructs the executive department to make contract awards to particular academic institutions without going through the normal awards process."

Stevens, in arguing against Proxmire's effort, said there was nothing new about Congress earmarking funds for certain colleges and universities. He said of Syracuse, "I do not know of a better investment in this bill in the interest of national security than to pursue the capabilities of that university in this area."

Proxmire's amendment was defeated 55 to 35.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) decried the special designations of funds in a speech last week, declaring that "pork barrel science" has found its way into the defense budget. Praising Weinberger's resistance to spending the money without competition, Bingaman said, "My sense is that there is going to be increasing opposition in the Congress to such a pork barrel approach . . . as more members come to recognize the zero-sum game that is being played."