Concern over American ability to compete internationally has spurred new congressional support for a federal fund to replace deteriorating college research facilities, but the momentum on Capitol Hill is accompanied by strong disagreement over how the money would be distributed.

The debate centers on a basic choice: Should resources be directed toward "top-shelf" institutions that will keep the country among the international leaders in research? Or should money be distributed with development of future scientists and facilities in mind? That goal would target more money to less-established schools and those that traditionally have served racial minorities.

With the disagreement unresolved, members of Congress are moving ahead, citing the pressing need to upgrade college research equipment and laboratories, where half of the nation's basic research is conducted.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in early June added a provision to the National Science Foundation fiscal 1988 budget authorizing funds to repair, renovate or replace college laboratories and other research facilities. The measure, which also has been sent to the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, would create a fund of $47 million in fiscal 1989 and $95 million in 1990.

A House bill, introduced by Rep. Robert A. Roe (D-N.J.) to create a 10-year, $250 million annual appropriation for research facilities, has attracted more than two dozen cosponsors and was the subject of a recent hearing by the Science, Space and Technology Committee, which Roe chairs.

The steep decline in federal support for college research facilities dates back more than two decades, dropping 85 percent, when adjusted for inflation, from $325 million in fiscal 1963 to $45.9 million in fiscal 1984, according to the Congressional Research Service. Federal funding for science and engineering facilities dropped from about $29 million in fiscal 1971 to just under $5 million in fiscal 1985.

But proposals to create a facilities fund drew little interest until recently, when Congress joined in the national hand-wringing over declining U.S. status in world markets.

"I don't think there's any doubt that the competitiveness issue in Congress has accelerated congressional concern about the facilities problem," said an aide to Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who offered an amendment to the NSF budget that would create the facilities fund. "It's really the first time Congress generally has accepted the significance of research facilities to competitiveness."

Proponents acknowledge that a fund is far from passage, but argue that there is more reason for optimism than with previous efforts.

"There is more support," said Robert M. Rosenzweig, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents more than 50 research institutions. "There is a realistic prospect that legislation can be passed."

Congressional support, however, is running up against opposition from the Reagan administration. At hearings on the House bill, National Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch testified that "while we support much of the intent and spirit" of the measure, "the bill simply cannot be accommodated within the current fiscal climate."

There is, however, little disagreement over the severity of the problem, when half of the country's university-based facilities are more than 25 years old and a quarter were built before World War II. A White House report last year estimated that it would cost $10 billion over the next 10 years to remedy the "university infrastructure shortfall."

The need has led to a scramble for funds and a bitter controversy over the increasingly common practice among institutions of soliciting individual appropriations directly from Congress. There is strong feeling among many scientists and college officials that federal money should be distributed only after a competitive "merit review," a process in which research proposals compete for funding largely on the basis of the institution's record for quality research.

But smaller, less-established schools contend that federal funding distributed by merit review has allowed elite universities, mostly in the East, to win funds disproportionately.

Although the dispute helped generate support for a fund, the proposals have been dogged by the same controversy.

At hearings on the Roe bill last month, Boston University President John Silber said the bill "would perpetuate the dangerous concentration of scientific resources at a small number of institutions."

As the bill is written, funds must be matched by nonfederal money and awarded on the basis of merit, according to NSF procedures. But 15 percent would be set aside for institutions where research had not been heavily funded by the federal government in recent years. That "set aside" -- which may be adjusted upward -- was included to answer the criticism that federal research dollars have gone disproportionately to elite institutions.

But some educators argue that a much larger portion of the fund should be reserved for minority and small institutions.

Luther S. Williams, president of the historically black Atlanta University, told Roe that "if a facilities program moves forward that does not take into account our special history and needs, we will be forever prevented from fulfilling our mission to bring black men and women into the vanguard of the national research effort."

Despite this criticism, the funding proposals have secured vocal support from another quarter -- the corporate community. Business leaders have joined college administrators to argue that commercial applications and competitiveness depend on university-based research.

The corporate support and a cooperative lobbying effort -- headed by the Council on Research and Technology, a coalition of universities and corporations that has hired lobbyist and former White House aide Stuart E. Eizenstat -- have lent credibility to the universities' plea for money.

"This is not just a university issue, it's a corporate issue," said Ken Kay, executive director of the council. "Corporations stand to be badly hurt if the country continues to allow its research infrastructure to deteriorate."