National Science Leaders Chart New Paths into the Quantum Frontier

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Publication date: 
9 August 2016

The Obama Administration has released two reports on the state of quantum computing and related R&D projects. Among other issues addressed, the reports call attention to the organizational difficulties the field is facing as it grows and as other countries ramp up counterpart efforts.

On July 26, the Obama Administration released two reports summarizing the state of research and development efforts that leverage some of the deepest phenomena of quantum physics. The reports note that quantum R&D has accelerated markedly over the past several years, and suggest that organizational changes and new policies will be needed to ensure continued rapid progress and to safeguard American leadership in the field. 

A chart from the interagency working group report showing increases in publications on quantum R&D.

One of the reports, “Advancing Quantum Information Science: National Challenges and Opportunities,” is a general overview produced by the Interagency Working Group on Quantum Information Science (QIS), which the National Science and Technology Council established in November 2014. The co-chairs of the working group are Steve Binkley, head of the Advanced Scientific Computing Research program at the Department of Energy Office of Science; Denise Caldwell, director of the Physics Division of the National Science Foundation; and Carl Williams, deputy director of the Physical Measurement Laboratory of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The other report, “Quantum Sensors at the Intersections of Fundamental Science, Quantum Information Science & Computing,” is the product of a roundtable that the DOE Office of Science hosted on Feb. 25 of this year. That event, which focused on DOE’s role in quantum R&D, was approved by Binkley and Jim Siegrist, associate director of DOE’s High Energy Physics program. It was chaired by Ronald Walsworth of Harvard University, Swapan Chattopadhyay of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Roger Falcone of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Quantum R&D faces formidable organizational challenges

Many fields of R&D entail difficulties in coordinating effort among federal agencies, and between the government, academic, and industrial sectors. Quantum R&D is no different. The interagency working group report outlines the distribution of research and funding across federal agencies and laboratories, including DOE, NSF, NIST, the Department of Defense, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. The report also notes the close connection of QIS R&D to the National Strategic Computing Initiative announced last year (and which just released its own strategic plan).

The report praises federal agencies for making the United States a leader in QIS research. However, it also warns that, as those agencies’ QIS programs have evolved, insufficient coordination has led to an “overall instability of U.S. research funding that has negatively impacted both the pace of technical progress and development of a QIS workforce in the United States.”

The report also draws attention to the special difficulties facing QIS R&D. The entire field rests on effects, such as quantum entanglement, that continue to be a focus for path-breaking physics research. At the same time, development of technologies such as quantum computers and encryption will require the integration of that research with traditionally distinct lines of research in applied mathematics and computer science. Moreover, all new quantum technologies will have to employ novel materials specially engineered to exploit phenomena that are inherently very difficult to control.

For such reasons, collaborations in quantum R&D must not only cross a large number of disciplines, but also connect parts of the R&D chain as far apart as university research and product engineering. Offering a sense of the kinds of gaps that will need to be bridged, the report observes:

Teams with a diverse range of skills will be needed in order to, for example, translate a proof-of-principle source of entangled photons on an optical table in a physics laboratory to a robust, scalable platform that can be incorporated into a real-life quantum network.

The report then breaks that overarching challenge down into component organizational challenges:

One of the key challenges is the lack of a consistent framework to support R&D that develops a laboratory prototype into a final marketable product. Another challenge involves licensing of intellectual property from universities; much of this IP is pre-competitive because QIS is not yet a mature field, but is being valued similarly to developed, more marketable technologies. A third is connecting capable and qualified graduates with companies in need of their specialized skills.

The report also argues that similar difficulties pertain to education and workforce training, pointing out, for instance, that few students outside of physics receive training in quantum mechanics. It recommends taking advantage of lessons learned from universities that have already developed specialized offerings in QIS. The report also warns of insufficient facilities for fabricating materials needed to conduct research and, ultimately, to manufacture quantum technologies.

DOE report suggests new program structures, warns of international competition

The interagency working group report’s recommendations take a broad perspective on the need to create stable core programs that can be quickly and flexibly augmented to tackle new opportunities as they arise.

The DOE roundtable report offers more specific suggestions for developing a “coherent and evolving portfolio of mechanisms” at DOE that would permit the agency to press further into what the report calls the “Quantum Frontier.” These mechanisms include:

  • Extramural funding programs that support teams led by multiple principal investigators over five-year periods;
  • Extramural funding programs for teams of about 50 people on a decadal timescale to address “grand challenges”;
  • Programs to facilitate collaboration between DOE and non-DOE researchers, with several awards made per year for “each DOE laboratory involved with quantum science”;
  • A young investigator program;
  • A high-risk/high-reward program to offer funding for “exciting new ideas” proposed by individuals “with a track record of success”; and
  • A DOE Small Business Innovation Research / Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/SBTT) program for quantum science and technology.

The roundtable report warns that institutional inflexibility is a “cultural challenge” that may lead to U.S.-based scientists routinely leaving American institutions for other countries with a more amenable research environment.

Explaining the broader context of its own report, the interagency working group likewise points to work abroad, specifically citing the £270 million National Quantum Technologies Programme that the United Kingdom announced in 2013 and the €1 billion “flagship” initiative in quantum technologies that the European Commission announced just this past April. Certainly American science administrators are far from alone in thinking about the infrastructure on which the future of quantum science and technology will be built.

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