At a recent National Academy of Sciences conference on the sad state of science and mathematics teaching in the US, educators were astounded to have President Reagan himself sound the alarm.
He leads an administration that has gutted federal support for science and mathematics teaching. Yet he sent a message calling the situation ''serious enough to compromise the nation's future ability to develop and advance our traditional industrial base. . . .'' Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell made the same point. So did Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, who foresaw shortages of scientists and engineers undercutting US military strength.
But lest anyone think the administration sees eye to eye with the science educators, presidential assistant Edwin L. Harper reiterated that ''we disagree with those who say that the federal government should be ultimately responsible for this problem.'' President Reagan may agree with NAS president Frank Press that the US may be ''raising a new generation of Americans that is scientifically illiterate.'' But he is unwilling to put up the bucks to do anything about it. That, Harper said, should be left to the generosity of industry and the strained resources of local government.
Certainly there is cause for alarm, as many educators and business and government leaders have been pointing out. For example, Emeritus Prof. Paul DeHart Hurd of Stanford University told the conference that half the nation's high school math and science teachers are unqualified. They are teaching with emergency certificates.
''Currently,'' he said, ''students have the attitude that high school science courses are for science majors and otherwise have little value. . . .'' He added that out of 25 instructional hours a week US children average one hour of science and four of math. This is reflected in a steady decline in average science and math scores in standard tests.
There are multiple dangers in this. Citizens who know little of science and technology can't manage a scientifically based society intelligently. Many individuals who could be outstanding scientists or engineers are ''turned off'' by poor teaching or lack of opportunity to study science and math. Tomorrow's executives will be ill equipped to compete in a technological marketplace.
The US faced a similar challenge in 1957 when the Soviets opened the space race. The Eisenhower administration responded by supporting the National Defense Education Act which, especially through the leadership of the National Science Foundation, led to dramatic improvements in high school science teaching in the 1960s.
Such federal leadership conflicts with the present Republican administration's desire to get Washington out of what it considers to be local affairs. But as Sarah E. Klein, president of the National Science Teachers Association, asks, ''Where is the funding going to come from. . . ?''
Mr. Reagan cannot have it both ways. If science teaching is to improve, sometime Washington will have to take the lead.