The United States outpaced other major nations in improving the energy efficiency of its industries from 1970 to 1986 but still lags behind most other industrial countries, an environmental research group said Saturday.

The World Resources Institute said the United States gained 33 percent in energy used per dollar of gross national product, the total retail value of all goods and services produced by the economy, in those 16 years.Japan ranked second with a 32 percent gain. Gains of some other countries included Canada and France, 28 percent; West Germany, 23 percent; Britain, 19 percent; Italy, 15 percent, and Brazil, 6 percent.

The International Energy Agency recently ranked the United States in eighth place among 20 countries in gains in efficiency of energy use by industry from 1973 to 1985.

Pushed by the two oil shocks of the 1970s and rapidly rising prices that continued through the early 1980s, most developed nations managed to use less energy to turn out goods and services by the mid-1980s.

According to figures compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U.S. energy efficiency improved at about 1.1 percent per year in the 1970s, accelerated to 2.8 percent per year from 1980 to 1986 and remained essentially unchanged in 1986-87.

An 0.6 percent gain is expected this year.

Here is the energy use per dollar of gross national product, expressed in terms Btus per dollars of 1980 buying power for each country: (A Btu or British thermal unit is a standard energy unit. About 300 Btus are used in boiling a quart of water.)

United States, 19,585; France, 8,264; Japan, 9,285; Italy, 10,714; Germany, 10,714; Brazil, 10,775; Britain, 13,829; Canada, 23,177.

For comparison, here are 1986 figures for some other countries: China, 41,128; India, 27,815; Poland, 83,646; Hungary, 47,062.