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[Image: Martin Falbisoner (CC BY-SA 3.0)/Wikimedia Commons]

The U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have sent their final version of the National Quantum Initiative (NQI) Act to President Donald Trump for signature. The strongly bipartisan bill—which passed by unanimous consent in the Senate on 13 December and by a 348–11 margin in the House on 19 December—is expected to be signed into law by the president before the end of the year. [Update: On Friday, 21 December, in advance of the partial shutdown of the U.S federal government, the president signed the act into law.]

The NQI Act would, over the next five years, create a variety of practical and administrative structures for scientific research coordination, workforce and standards creation, and technology development in quantum information science (QIS). The act dovetails with recent Trump administration efforts to articulate a national QIS strategy for the United States. It also represents the culmination of a remarkable, fast-track legislative journey spearheaded by the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), an industry-academic-government coalition led by five scientific societies, which has made advocacy of the NQI legislation a key focus over the past 18 months. (OSA, the publisher of OPN, is a co-founding sponsor of NPI.)

Advancing QIS—and the workforce to do it

As written, the bill authorizes the U.S. National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) to spend up to a total of US$1.275 billion over the next five years on a variety of quantum-related activities, “subject to the availability of appropriations.” These activities would include the creation by NIST of a quantum consortium tasked with identifying “the future measurement, standards, cybersecurity, and other appropriate needs for supporting the development of a robust quantum information science and technology industry in the United States.”

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[Image: Getty Images]

NSF’s responsibilities under the act would focus on funding, largely through the agency’s existing program structure, basic research in quantum information science and engineering, and education and training to better equip a future quantum workforce. NSF would also be authorized to develop a new program of “graduate traineeships” in QIS, and to create two to five multidisciplinary centers that would emphasize “supporting curriculum and workforce development” and “fostering innovation by bringing industry perspectives to quantum research and workforce development.”

Finally, DoE is given authority under the act to review applications for, and support the creation of, two to five QIS research centers “to conduct basic research to accelerate scientific breakthroughs in quantum information science and technology.” DoE is also tasked with working through and coordinating its existing programs to advance quantum research and to “provide research experiences and training for additional undergraduate and graduate students.”

Administration role

Meanwhile, the NQI Act directs the U.S. president, through the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), to create a new office coordinating quantum research activities among these and other agencies, and to implement a program tasked with fashioning “a 10-year plan to accelerate development of quantum information science and technology applications in the United States.” The legislation also calls for the administration to build additional strategic-planning resources in the form of a QIS subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (which was established in June of this year), and an NQI advisory committee drawn from academia, industry and the national labs.

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Jake Taylor of OSTP talked with OPN about the Trump administration’s role in the U.S. QIS strategy. [Image: Denease Anderson/NIST]

The focus on strategic planning and long-term cooperation meshes with recent OSTP efforts to articulate a quantum strategy that wraps in the resources of government, industry, and academia. In an interview published in OPN’s January 2019 issue, Jake Taylor, OSTP’s assistant director for QIS, highlighted the need for a “science first” approach to quantum at this stage of the technology, under which government and academia foster a “strong innovation ecosystem” that “connects science to industrial efforts and back.”

OSTP is also emphasizing the need for workforce development in its planning, another key element of the NQI Act. “As you push through into the next generation of science, you start to learn that there are skills and knowledge that future scientists need that you don’t have,” Taylor told OPN. “There is an opportunity for broadening the workforce participation here by identifying those joint skills and calling them out earlier.”

Advocacy triumph

Given the current, divisive political climate in Washington, the NQI Act is particularly notable for its bipartisanship, and for the relative celerity of its journey from conception to enactment. Much of this traces to NPI’s continual advocacy of the measure since summer 2017, when the organization released a white paper calling for a national quantum initiative, developed by a group of scientists led by OSA Life Member Christopher Monroe of the University of Maryland and OSA Fellow and former board member Michael Raymer of the University of Oregon.

Monroe subsequently testified at an October 2017 House subcommittee hearing on the need for U.S. action in quantum technology, particularly in light of the maturing programs in other countries and regions. And NPI fostered the preparation in April 2018, again via a group guided by Raymer and Monroe, of a National Quantum Initiative Action Plan, the key elements of which are embodied in the final NQI Act.

The fruits of those efforts are now headed to the White House for signature, which must happen before 31 December. And—while recent political history has tended to reward those who “expect the unexpected”—it’s generally believed that the president will sign the bill into law by year-end, particularly given its strong bipartisan nature and the administration’s already-expressed interest in fostering a QIS strategy for the United States.