Top administration health officials have drafted a plan to set up a Senior Biomedical Research Service that would pay the government's most eminent scientists up to $110,000 a year, according to Thomas R. Burke, chief of staff at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The figure is $32,000 higher than salaries at top levels of the Senior Executive Service, made up of the government's senior managers, and $10,000 more than the pay of Cabinet secretaries.

The extraordinary proposal is necessary to prevent a biomedical "brain drain" to business and academia, according to John J. Coogan, a Presidential Exchange Executive and head of the committee responsible for the proposal. The top figure is 66 percent of the average earned by medical school clinical department chairmen, he said.

The $100,000 salary barrier already has been scaled by top medical officials in the Veterans Administration and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, and some Federal Reserve Board officials, according to Burke and the General Accounting Office.

Yet raising governmental pay remains among the most controversial issues in Washington. An official commission recommended last year that Cabinet secretaries be paid $160,000 annually and that other top administration officials be given comparable raises. But the president slashed the proposal and Congress allowed modest increases to take effect after voting officially, but harmlessly, against the raises too late to meet a statutory deadline.

The new proposal would skirt government-wide pay caps by keeping base pay between $53,830 and $77,500, but making individuals eligible for supplemental pay of up to $25,000 for scientific accomplishments and up to $10,000 for administrative responsibilities.

The plan is an outgrowth of an effort by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to revitalize the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service, a uniformed service that becomes part of the Navy in wartime, and save it from elimination by the Office of Management and Budget.

Many top biomedical researchers in government are members of the commissioned corps.

To Koop, some of them joined for a wrong reason, "to get more pay. These people didn't give one hoot about the commissioned corps." By backing a new program for scientists, he can achieve his goal of opening opportunities for promotion at the top of the commissioned corps while allowing the National Institutes of Health to retain its top scientists as civil servants.

Pay, allowances and bonuses for senior corps members are higher than in the civil service, although they vary depending upon family, housing and other circumstances.

The proposed Senior Biomedical Research Service would allow top corps members to transfer into the civil service without losing money. It would be competitive and accept only about the top 1,100 biomedical researchers and administrators in the Public Health Service.

The proposal is being circulated for comment by Aug. 3. Its costs are supposed to be "nominal," according to Burke, on the theory that corps members now make comparable salaries. OMB has been briefed and Koop has sought tentative support on Capitol Hill, according to a spokesman.

The commissioned corps revitalization and pay issues are intertwined; when Koop attempted this year to enforce longstanding corps regulations -- such as wearing uniforms, rotation of duty and mandatory retirement after 30 years -- NIH officials complained vociferously.

Koop said OMB tried to kill the commissioned corps because it was no longer living up to its mission of being a flexible, mobile, expert corps able to respond to public health disasters. One of its principal tasks is to provide health care on Indian reservations.

Koop fought to save the corps, he said, because it is "an asset to the American people." He cited as an example the "onslaught of Cuban-Haitian refugees in South Florida," when 268 officers spent between two weeks and two years in an "extraordinarily difficult situation."

"Ask a civil servant to go to Florida on short notice and treat tuberculosis and hepatitis!" he said. "Ask people to go under contract -- you can't find what you need when you need it."

But when notices of mandatory retirement were sent to 34 top scientists at NIH, Koop's revitalization effort came under heavy fire.

Koop said he never intended to force out any of NIH's world-renowned researchers, although some got the mandatory retirement notices. He said he intended to retain 24 of the 34 scientists who got the notices. The retirement waivers, however, are for only one year.

To prevent a rerun of the controversy next year, Koop and Dr. James B. Wyngaarden, director of NIH, worked out an agreement after "searching discussion," according to Dr. Philip Chen Jr., associate director of intramural affairs at NIH. "The general aspects of the revitalization, on their face, threatened some individuals at NIH," he said.

The proposed Senior Biomedical Research Service would make it possible for NIH to retain its best researchers while the commissioned corps enforced its rotation and retirement rules. "We don't want to send {prominent cancer researcher and AIDS virus discoverer Dr. Robert} Gallo out to an Indian reservation," Burke said.