Abstract image of digital information

[Image: Getty Images]

In October 2017, a group of government and academic scientists, including representatives of the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), testified to a U.S. congressional subcommittee to argue for government support of quantum technology under the aegis of a formal National Quantum Initiative (NQI). A mere eight months later—virtually real time in the government sphere—it appears that those initial efforts are about to bear fruit. This week, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, chaired by Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, announced that it would soon unveil a National Quantum Initiative Act, with the aim of positioning the United States as “the global leader in Quantum Information Science (QIS).”

Broad quantum vision

The NQI Act rests on extensive policy groundwork, beginning with a white paper released almost exactly a year ago by NPI, an industry-academia-government collaboration formed in 2013 to boost visibility, support and funding for photonic science and business in the United States. (The Optical Society, OPN’s publisher, is one of five scientific societies leading the NPI.)

Coauthored by Christopher Monroe of the University of Maryland and OSA Fellow Michael Raymer of the University of Oregon, the June 2017 white paper argued for a half-billion-dollar U.S. public investment in support of quantum technology, including a series of innovation labs, standards development and a variety of other infrastructure and human-resources initiatives. The paper focused in particular on the prospects for three research areas: advanced quantum sensor technology, optical quantum communication and quantum computing.

Monroe and Raymer followed up that study, and Monroe’s well-received presentation of the white paper’s findings at the October congressional testimony, with an NQI Action Plan coauthored with 15 other scientists and released in April 2018. The action plan, presented during an NPI “Capitol Hill Day” in the same month, limned out the components of the initial 2017 call to action and presented a framework for implementing them. Two months later, the House science committee announced that it would be releasing a bill to implement an NQI.

Ten-year program

While the new legislation hasn’t yet been unveiled, a “one pager” released by the committee describing the plan suggests that it will emphasize government coordination, standards support, and at least some investment in research through existing agencies and budgets. As described in the one-pager, the effort envisions a “10-year program to advance quantum development and technology applications.”

The NQI Act would accomplish this by establishing a “National Quantum Coordination Office” in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, tasked with interagency coordination and strategic planning; support of research and standards development at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology; and research programs at the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy (including the stand-up of an unspecified number of “Energy Department research centers” on quantum). The act would also “encourage U.S. high-tech companies … to contribute their knowledge and resources to a national effort,” and would aim to address issues in fundamental-research gaps, workforce development and U.S. participation in the development of global quantum standards.

International competition

One item not in the one-pager is the size of the actual funding commitment, if any, that the legislation would put on the table to implement this broad support of quantum science. Still, the implicit competition with the substantial investments that other governments are bringing to bear on quantum technology—such as the billion-dollar Quantum Flagship program of the European Union, the substantial commitments of European national governments in the United Kingdom, Germany and elsewhere, and, perhaps most of all, the multi-billion-dollar effort apparently afoot in China—has constituted a key subtext underlying, and driving, much of the discussion of the NQI.

“China, in particular, has stated publicly its national goal of surpassing the U.S. in quantum computing during the next decade,” the science committee’s one-pager asserts in one of its bullet points. And the one-page summary generally frames the envisioned NQI’s goal starkly in terms of international competitiveness: “to accelerate quantum research and development for the United States’ economic and national security.”

The budding NQI Act is hardly the only vehicle for boosting funding for quantum technology, however. At the end of May, in the other house of the U.S. Congress, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to include US$20 million in additional resources earmarked specifically for quantum information science research in the National Defense Authorization Act, which will govern the funding of the U.S. defense agencies in fiscal 2019.

The text of the proposed NQI Act will be released by House science committee chair Smith as early as next week, and could be placed on the committee’s calendar for consideration as early as the week of 25 June.