The United States is taking a calculated risk in threatening to withdraw from UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Will this threat force that troubled agency to reform, or will the US end up merely isolating itself from the world scientific and cultural scene?
The US stand has already sparked some UNESCO reform efforts. Yet many US scientific and educational specialists are skeptical that the Reagan administration has realistically calculated the costs the US would incur if it did, in fact, withdraw.
They are concerned that their country would be frozen out of important global efforts in oceanographic and environmental research. They fear withdrawal would cripple the helping hand the US now extends to scientists in developing countries through UNESCO. And they suspect that the Reagan administration is overly sensitive to the anti-Western rhetoric that characterizes an international forum dominated by third-world members.
Such concern was spelled out recently at a symposium held here during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Even critics of the Reagan administration concede that UNESCO is badly managed, spends too much on its Paris headquarters, and suffers from political pressures. But they also stress that actual UNESCO programs in the field have generally been valuable and reasonably well managed. Jean Bergaust, deputy assistant secretary for International Organizations at the US Department of State, conceded this. Presenting the official view, she explained: ''We primarily have no fault (to find) whatsoever with the activities that go on in the field. But when you have an organization which spends close to 80 percent of its budget at its headquarters and 20 percent in the field, you feel that there needs to be a little different prioritization.''
She also noted: ''We no longer see any reason to excuse inefficiency and ineffectiveness or anti-American action just because they may occur in an international organization.''
Since the US announced its tentative withdrawal decision last December, the UNESCO executive board has officially acknowledged a need for change. It has appointed a working group to study this and report back in the fall. A 24-member group of Western nations also is working on proposals for specific reforms.
The administration says it welcomes these developments but has yet to see any concrete action. Meanwhile, the State Department is preparing contingency plans, should the US withdraw. These include finding alternatives to UNESCO for joining international scientific projects.
And that is where the controversy centers. Many US experts see no such alternatives. Roger Revelle of the University of California at San Diego - a former oceanographer and government scientific adviser - remarked, ''UNESCO is a poor agency. But for fields such as oceanography it is the only game in town.'' He said he doubts that the Reagan administration fully understands this.
The State Department is seeking advice from such experts and has asked the National Academy of Sciences to suggest alternatives to UNESCO. Yet, at the symposium, some of these very experts were openly skeptical. One of them was Lewis M. Branscomb, chief scientist for IBM and recently chairman of the National Science Board of the US National Science Foundation. Having failed to get a satisfactory reply when he asked what the alternatives might be, he remarked to people sitting near him in the audience that there are no alternatives to UNESCO.
The administration has said that it would try to work through such non-governmental organizations as the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). It has also said the US would retain membership in the International Oceanographic Council (IOC). Noting this, Samuel B. McKee of the National Academy of Sciences said it would be foolish to try to choose between ICSU and UNESCO. He explained that agencies such as ICSU can plan and coordinate projects , but they cannot commit governments to support them. The funding generally comes through UNESCO.
Revelle underscored this point. He explained that oceanography requires international governmental cooperation. He said that there is only one international agency that fosters intergovernmental cooperation in oceanography, and that is UNESCO.
Indeed, many developing countries do not belong to ICSU. Thus, for US scientists, the UNESCO controversy turns not so much on any reluctance to seek reform, as on the fear that the US will cut off its nose to spite its face. Revelle expressed this bluntly when he said it is his perception that ''the US position . . . is they would like to stop the world because they want to get off.''
Venezuela's ambassador-designate to UNESCO, Alfredo Planchart, offered another perspective. He noted that ''the US is, after all, the most powerful country - certainly in science, certainly in communications, probably in education, and possibly even in culture. I think it would be very sorely missed in a world forum such as UNESCO is. And I think the United States should put up a little bit with some of the anti-Western and anti-US sentiments which do exist . . . in such forums.''