If, as the chairman of the U.S. Institute of Peace puts it, finding the means for world harmony is like finding the cure for cancer, then the institute is the nation's newest laboratory of good will.

"We're engaged in trying to serve as the focal point to review and enhance human knowledge in conflict matters," says John Norton Moore, board chairman. "We want to help answer: 'What is the state of knowledge about avoiding war? What approaches work and what approaches don't?' "

To critics, this is a truly hopeless task. The institute, they charge, is "fuzzy" -- peace cannot be studied because it is not subject to categorization or quantification. Conflicts in different parts of the world occur for vastly different reasons, they say, and each must be evaluated separately.

"The phrase 'peace' is highly emotive," Moore acknowledges. "It generates on the one hand lots of good will, and, on the other hand, some view it as a catch-phrase for approaches that they may not support.

"But they should realize that there is only one ideology here that counts -- and it is a very stringent standard: what in fact works in the real world to avoid war and to have peace and freedom."

The institute, signed into existence by President Reagan almost three years ago, has developed steadily, its officers say, and is poised to launch a variety of nonpartisan academic programs.

Through underwriting grants, fellowships, seminars, television specials and other programs, the institute hopes to help coordinate research by scholars across the country and spread academic understanding of international conflict to the ambassadors and negotiators who sit at the world's bargaining tables.

The institute was established by Congress in October 1984, nearly 50 years after Congress first considered the concept of an executive agency devoted to promoting peace. Under its charter, the institute cannot take a stand on political issues, and its board is composed of presidentially appointed members of the major political parties.

"We're not here to oppose the contras or SDI or anything else," says institute President Robert F. Turner. "Rather, we're looking at broad theories, principles and ideas."

With a handful of staff members, some borrowed furniture and a Jackson Place town house on loan from the White House, the institute opened its doors last April eager to establish a strong reputation, secure funding from Congress and begin implementing a host of grand ideas.

Institute leaders acknowledge that finding the answers for world peace is a hefty chore and that it will take some time before they see any results of their efforts.

"Current knowledge suggests that cancer is not caused by a single factor, but an enormously complex range of phenomena caused by the interaction of many different factors," says Moore.

"On the cure side, it's the same problem," he continues. "There's not a single holy grail that has enabled us to cure cancer or probably that will enable us to cure cancer. Rather, it is working at the margins, struggling constantly to get better, dealing with a variety of incremental ways to get at a whole variety of problems."

Foremost among the institute's efforts to make an impact are grant and fellowship programs that were set in motion earlier this year. By early summer, the board of directors, which includes top government officials and international relations specialists, had approved 45 grants totaling more than $1.2 million for organizations and individuals researching peace issues.

The Jennings Randolph fellowship program, named for the former West Virginia senator who was one of the principal proponents of the institute, offers peace scholars from around the world up to two years of research in Washington. The first group of eight scholars, announced in February, includes former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency director Eugene Rostow and former U.N. undersecretary general Bradford Morse.

The institute also plans to start a high school essay contest, produce a television program on the history of U.S.-Soviet negotiations and continue a series of seminars on various peace issues with the aim of assembling a final report. The institute expects to operate on a proposed budget of $10 million for the next fiscal year.