Defense Undersecretary Donald Hicks has suggested that he might withhold research grants from scientists who criticize Defense Department policy. He particularly had Star Wars, the president's Strategic Defense Initiative, in mind. "If they want to get out and use their roles as professors to make statements, that's fine, it's a free country," he said in an interview with Science magazine. But "freedom works both ways. They're free to keep their mouths shut. . . . I'm also free not to give the money."

The scientific establishment quickly and predictably cried foul. Leading scientists said Mr. Hicks was abusing his power as the nation's largest dispenser of research funds by introducing a political standard of judgment where only scientific merit should count. They are right, of course. Poor Mr. Hicks, a former Northrop Corp. executive who prides himself on a bluntness of speech and thought that in this case made hash of a delicate subject, is wrong.

But now we also read that thousands of physicists have signed a "pledge of nonparticipation" in SDI research, on grounds that the supposedly defensive initiative would actually violate treaties and step up the arms race. Question: are they not also mixing politics and science? They cry hurt when the government does it. They are altogether within their rights, but there is the smell of a double standard here.

Mr. Hicks's is the easier case to dispose of. At his confirmation hearing last year he said, "I'm not particulary interested in seeing department money going to someplace where an individual is outspoken in his rejection of department aims, even for basic research." In the Science interview he made the mistake of continuing down that path. "I have a tough time with disloyalty," he said. "We're in a situation where we're trying to protect the position of the United States against a power that would like to soak us up. . . . My money is overall specified to be given to people who feel the same kind of urgency that I feel."

Crude is the word for this; it leaves too much out. Fair to say, perhaps, that a scientist should neither seek nor be entrusted with work toward an end to which he objects. But suppose a scientist objects, as many seem to do, to Star Wars; does that disqualify him from work on other projects he does not oppose? How at the level of basic research do you even distinguish between work for one application and another, when the whole point is that these are not known? The Pentagon issued a statement, saying Mr. Hicks "was speaking hypothetically," and "it is not . . . policy to review researchers' opinions prior to awarding them contracts."

There is no such retreat on the side of the striking physicists. They include 15 Nobel laureates and majorities of some of the country's best physics departments. "They can always get the people," one sniffed of the Pentagon and those physicists left to work on SDI. "The question is, of what quality?"

Well, okay: There is no law that says the signers have to work on SDI; as Mr. Hicks himself observed, they have the right to speak out. It is even honorable of them to renounce the money. Grant even that they may be right on the merits. But a little less sanctimoniousness, please, the next time the government strikes bac