If such a programme went ahead, it would make the first major impact in 50 years into deaths and illness from cancer of the bowel, the second most common cancer which kills 17,433 people a year in the UK, researchers say.
First, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund is seeking support to mount a pounds 3m test programme with 120,000 men and women aged 55 to 60, probably based on GP practices.
Half would be given the simple, painless rectal examination using a flexible scope called a sigmoidoscope. If any polyps or pre-cancers were then found in the sigmoid colon, the lowest part of the bowel, they would be removed there and then.
Dr Jack Cuzick, of the fund's department of mathematics, statistics and epidemiology, said that the test took about five minutes, or 10 if a polyp needed to be removed. It costs pounds 25 to pounds 50 per screening.
He estimated that a full national programme would cost pounds 30m compared to the cost of treating bowel cancer which is pounds 100m.
Dr Cuzick said that bowel cancer fulfilled the essential criteria for a national programme: the disease was common but treatable and there was a safe and effective test to detect it.
He said that bowel cancer affected about one in 20 people and, apart from a minority who had rare, inherited disease, it was mostly a condition of late middle and old age.
About 5 per cent of people screened will show signs that they may have serious disease and will need a further investigation.
The researchers, who have set out the case for a national sigmoidoscopy screening programme in tomorrow's edition of the Lancet, say that the method is more acceptable to the population than an alternative screening method which requires people to provide a faecal sample.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said that a joint meeting was being held shortly between the ICRF and the Medical Research Council to 'address the whole issue to the early diagnosis of colorectal cancer'.Reuse content