IN ITS budget for 1981, the Department of Energy finally seemed to have sorted out its research priorities, accelerating expenditures on those technologies that can displace oil in the near term (the rest of this decade) and cutting or deferring those that cannot make a contribution until well into the next century. Thus, funding for energy efficiency and conservation programs -- unquestionably the largest near-term energy source -- was increased, while the breeder reactor R&D budget was severely cut. For the midterm -- the decade of the 1990s -- the emphasis was placed on solar energy, for which the president had just set an ambitious goal of providing 20 percent of the nation's total energy in the year 2000.

Now, however, internal memorandums have come to light detailing DOE's plans for R&D spending over the next five years, and these raise a host of questions. For the new budgets seem to reflect an entirely different set of priorities and long-range plans. Such abrupt shifts are damaging to any research program that must have a steady commitment of interest and funds over many years in order to be successful.But in this case they are especially troubling, for DOE seems to be settling back into an old pattern of energy funding that does not reflect current realities.

In the early 1970s, growth in electricity demand was forecast to be at least 7 percent a year for the indefinite future. Accordingly, the energy budget went largely to nuclear power, and the lion's share of it went to the breeder. Last year, electricity demand grew at 0.2 percent, and many experts foresee negative growth rates ahead. Meanwhile, uranium prices have plummeted -- falling nearly by half in the last four years. Economically competitive breeder reactors depend on greatly increased demand for electricity and cost of uranium, so the earliest breeder commercialization date has now slipped well beyond 2020. Yet Secretary Duncan's new budget calls for an $865 million increase over planned levels in funding for the breeder over the next five years.

Conversely, the potential of conservation has only been fully understood within the past few years. It has also become increasingly clear that the near term, especially the latter half of this decade -- before nations have been able to make a full transition to energy-lean economies -- may be the period of greatest energy shortage. Hence one would expect a growing emphasis on conservation programs, while the new budget projects a $26 million cut. Cuts are also projected in the solar budget, which is already below that needed to achieve the president's stated 20 percent goal. On the other hand, large increases are slated for synthetic fuels programs that not even their most enthusiastic supporters think can contribute substantial amounts of energy before 2000 -- and these are in addition to the $19 billion already set aside for these fuels.

This type of leaping around from one short-lived enthusiasm to another -- last year solar energy, this year synthetic fuels, next year who knows what -- will doom the R&D program. Coupled with DOE's lack of a long-range energy plan, continued waffling and confusion in this relatively little-notice corner of the federal budget could well spell bad news for the country's economic health.