01/10/2012 04:20 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2012

A Sort of Happy New Year for the New Science Budget

Considering how bad it could have been, science didn't fare all that poorly in the budget bill that President Obama signed on December 23. Not, at least if you factor in the constraints on discretionary spending imposed by the Budget Control Act and look at the results in the aggregate. But it's still little reason to break out the champagne. And if the result hints at a long-term pattern the news is none-too-good for the investment needed to build American's science and technology future.

Here are some examples of S&T budgeting that give a flavor of short-term ups and downs.

Increases over 2011 appropriations were claimed by the Department of Energy's research wing ARPA-E, which receives $275 million, up from $180 million last year. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy programs receive $1.8 billion, 1.6 percent above '11. These are all far short of the president's requests but still not horrible The DOE's Office of Science gets a one percent increase at $4.9 billion, and Basic Energy Sciences within the office receives $1.7 billion, a small increase.

The National Institutes of Health budget will make some medical school deans breathe a modest sigh of relief. They received $30.7 billion in appropriations, $300 million or 1 percent above the amount in 2011, resulting in the same level of grants funded as last year. Included for NIH is $576 million specifically for the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), allowing NCATS to begin its work. Simultaneously, as proposed by NIH, the National Center for Research Resources is de-authorized and many of its programs moved to NCATS.

Important efforts to keep track of Mother Earth took a few hits. The Department of the Interior's U.S. Geological Survey receives $1.07 billion, $14 million below the 2011 enacted level. The 40-year old remote land sensing project called Landsat is stuck in the mud, though, as the USGS didn't receive the increase requested to begin the next phase, which would have provided images to advance research on agriculture, geology, forestry, regional planning, education, mapping, and global change. Along these lines, Science and Technology in the Environmental Protection Administration was funded at $795 million, $18 million below 2011. The cut came mostly from air and climate change research. And a renewal of an old provision requires the President to submit a report on all Federal climate change spending within 120 days. One may read here a worrisome attitude between the lines.

In keeping with skepticism about the Department of Education's Race to the Top, that program is cut by more than 20 percent from $698 million in 2011 down to $550 million in 2013. Congress would not provide funding for the president's ARPA-ED and 100,000 STEM teachers proposals.

Reflecting changing national security priorities and perhaps some continuing reservations about the organization of the Department of Homeland Security, the Science and Technology Directorate receives only $688 million, well below $828 million enacted in 2011 and a $1.2 billion 2012 Budget request. S&T fared better in the Defense Department, with $12.4 billion and so well above the 2012 Budget. But the Pentagon's cutting edge science agency, DARPA, never a big-budget outfit, gets reduced by $160 million down to $2.8 billion, affecting portfolios across the board.

Though these are only some of the numbers, they give a sense of the continuing problem of public investment in long-term science and technology, at the same time that over two trillion dollars in venture capital is waiting in the wings. The defense authorization bill awaiting the president's signature includes a smart and long overdue gesture toward leveraging small businesses that happen to have venture capital: National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programs may give up to 25 percent of their SBIR funds to majority venture capital-owned businesses. Other federal agencies are authorized to award up to 15 percent. The willingness to allow a combine of venture capital with small business grants should help some companies over the "valley of death" that too often impedes a good idea from getting into the marketplace.

When money is tight more creativity is needed. As many have observed, and as the founders wished, immigration policies that encourage skilled and energetic young people to become Americans built the country. Today's odious currents of xenophobia and nativism are nothing new to America, but neither is the determination to overcome them. Whether our generation rises to the challenge of putting this piece of a new American century into place is an open question.