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By Mitch Ambrose
Efforts to prioritize quantum R&D have leapt forward this year in Washington, D.C., spurred by policymakers’ growing conviction of the strategic importance of nascent technologies that leverage some of the deepest phenomena of quantum mechanics. Advances in quantum information science (QIS) in particular promise to enable powerful new sensing, communication, and computing technologies.
Although federal agencies have supported QIS research for decades, the field is now widely viewed to be at an inflection point. Countries and private companies are committing substantial resources to secure a stake in the market for quantum technologies and to master those that could prove especially disruptive.
Concerned the U.S. lacks a comprehensive strategy in the face of other governments’ investments, particularly those of China and the European Union, some policymakers are seeking to launch a national initiative to better focus federal quantum R&D efforts in partnership with academia and industry.
Drawing parallels to the space race of the 1960s, leaders of the House Science Committee have advanced bipartisan legislation to launch a 10-year National Quantum Initiative. The initiative would establish an interagency coordination infrastructure and direct $255 million per year to QIS R&D across the Department of Energy (DOE), National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) during its first five years.
DOE and NSF would commit $125 million and $50 million per year, respectively, to support up to five QIS research centers each. DOE’s centers would focus on research and technology development, while NSF’s would have more of an eye toward longer-term workforce development activities. NIST, a pioneer in QIS, would be charged with continuing to lay the groundwork for the emerging quantum industry by advancing relevant measurement science and standards.
A primary driver behind the bill is a coalition of scientific societies, universities, and industry groups known as the National Photonics Initiative. A newly launched Quantum Industry Coalition has also endorsed the initiative, although it hopes to broaden the bill’s focus beyond basic research to explicitly encompass applied research. The Senate Commerce Committee advanced similar legislation in August, although for jurisdictional reasons its version does not contain the DOE provisions.
Although supportive of the House bill’s underlying research principles, APS has expressed concerns that the legislation could divert funding from other research programs if the agencies do not receive corresponding budget increases. APS supports the Senate version, which does not have stringent funding directives.
Separate quantum-focused legislative measures have already made it into law this year. The annual defense policy bill Congress passed in August directs the Department of Defense to create a program to coordinate QIS R&D across the department and interface with civilian agencies where appropriate.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has tapped NIST physicist Jake Taylor to be the office’s first-ever point person for QIS and co-lead a new interagency coordinating committee dedicated to the subject (see APS News, February 2018). Across the Potomac, the Pentagon has created a new position dedicated to overseeing quantum research as part of a broader restructuring of its R&D apparatus.
Although the current spate of congressional action is driven by interest in the potential technological applications of QIS, Taylor stresses there is much fundamental science still to be done.
“If you just think of this as a technological field that’s ripe for that type of development, I think that at the present time we see that as a bit early,” Taylor says. “There is technology to be done, for sure, but it’s a little bit like trying to predict the emergence of the Global Positioning System right after you invented the atomic clock.”
The author is a science policy analyst with FYI at the American Institute of Physics.
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