FYI: Science Policy News

Expansion of National Quantum Initiative Pitched to Science Committee

JUN 22, 2023
The House Science Committee heard testimony this month on ideas for expanding the National Quantum Initiative, which is approaching the midpoint of its initial 10-year horizon.
Mitch Ambrose headshot
Director of Science Policy News American Institute of Physics

Left to right: National Quantum Coordination Office Director Charles Tahan, former DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar, NASA quantum scientist Eleanor Rieffel, Quantum Economic Development Consortium Executive Director Celia Merzbacher, and University of Illinois quantum scientist Emily Edwards testified before the House Science Committee on June 7.

(House Science Committee)

Ideas are percolating for the next phase of the National Quantum Initiative, which Congress enacted five years ago to accelerate development of technologies that leverage quantum information science (QIS). Earlier this month, the House Science Committee held a hearing to solicit views from experts and air lawmakers’ priorities for a legislative update the committee is drafting.

One possibility discussed was adding more federal agencies to the NQI, particularly NASA, which could follow China in developing quantum communication satellites. Workforce development was identified as another priority, and many Republicans on the committee expressed a strong interest in reinforcing research security measures for quantum technology.

Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) argued in his opening statement that it is important for the U.S. to stay ahead of China in developing quantum technology, alluding to reports that the Chinese government plans to spend over $15 billion in the area over five years. “The global leader in commercial and military quantum applications will have an economic and strategic advantage not seen since the United States ushered in the nuclear age in the 1940s,” he asserted.

NQI coordinator makes case for expanding initiative

Quantum physicist Charles Tahan, the director of the National Quantum Coordination Office, presented recommendations at the hearing on behalf of the NQI agencies and noted that complementary proposals had just been issued by the initiative’s advisory panel, which he co-chairs.

Tahan highlighted that annual federal funding for QIS R&D has roughly doubled since the start of the NQI, reaching about $900 million in fiscal year 2022. Efforts launched as a result of the initiative include major QIS research centers supported by the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation that are focused on different applications, such as sensing, communications, and computing. The National Institute of Standards and Technology also established a Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C) to help companies coordinate pre-competitive R&D and identify shared supply-chain needs.

The advisory panel proposes that Congress renew the QIS centers’ authorization for at least another five years, lift the statutory cap on the number of centers, and signal intent to support the initiative beyond its original 10-year time horizon. The panel also notes NIST and NSF did not meet the funding targets the NQI legislation set out for them and it draws attention to additional programs that are authorized but not yet fully funded. In particular, it recommends moving ahead with DOE programs outlined in the CHIPS and Science Act that would be dedicated to developing quantum communication networks and providing researchers access to quantum computing infrastructure.

Tahan offered additional ideas at the hearing for increasing the initiative’s focus on transitioning QIS advances into practical applications, such as creating a NIST Center for Quantum Engineering Research and drawing more on NSF’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships.

He also proposed Congress formally add the State Department to the NQI and create a “dedicated international fund” to support the quantum partnership agreements the U.S. has struck with partner nations. He further identified NASA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Homeland Security as capable of playing a larger role and welcomed additional coordination with the Department of Defense, which has expanded its work in QIS in parallel with the NQI.

Bigger role eyed for NASA

Committee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) expressed a particular interest in adding NASA to the NQI, soliciting endorsements of the idea from all the witnesses.

One witness, former DOE Under Secretary for Science Paul Dabbar, proposed the committee authorize a joint DOE-NASA program to link satellites to terrestrial quantum networks, stressing that China already launched such a satellite six years ago. He said such an idea had been pitched internally at NASA and that an explicit endorsement from Congress would help it get off the ground. During his time at DOE, Dabbar advocated for building out a “quantum internet” with national labs as nodes and, after leaving the department, he co-founded the company Bohr Quantum Technology, which focuses on networking applications.

Representing NASA at the hearing was Eleanor Rieffel, director of the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the agency’s Ames Research Center in California. She noted that NASA has produced concepts for a space-based quantum networking testbed and is funding development of a “quantum gravity gradiometer” that would provide 10-times greater resolution than sensors on the GRACE satellites, which precisely measure gravity to detect mass shifts on the Earth’s surface.

Republicans stress research security concerns

Concerns over research security motivated much of the discussion at the hearing, including Lucas’ first question to the witness panel. “Unfortunately, we know how China is happy to let the U.S. advance fundamental research while it over-invests in the development of leading-edge applications after the fact. In the next five years of the National Quantum Initiative, how can we safeguard our research investments while maintaining our core scientific values?” he asked.

Tahan replied that federal agencies have developed protection plans specific to quantum technology and are continuing to refine them, but added that the agencies have also concluded the U.S. benefits from having a relatively open research system.

“First and foremost, our goal has to be to continue to move fast, empower our scientists and entrepreneurs, keep the open scientific community. This is a unanimous view from the agencies: we need to keep our open scientific engine of discovery going,” he said. He also noted that in 2021 an interagency panel focused on the security implications of quantum technology published a report emphasizing international scholars’ contributions to the U.S.

Various Republican committee members asked other witnesses to offer perspectives on the matter throughout the hearing.

Dabbar pointed to the technology risk matrix that DOE’s national labs developed during his tenure at the department as a model that could be replicated at other agencies. He described the matrix as a “list technology-by-technology of what’s okay to work with on an open-science basis and what, although it may not be classified (yet), should be restricted on engagement with countries that are adversaries.”

QED-C Executive Director Celia Merzbacher added that companies participating in her consortium are in constant dialogue with law enforcement agencies about potential risks. She cautioned against unilaterally applying export controls to quantum technology, saying any such restrictions should be implemented in concert with other countries to avoid disadvantaging U.S. businesses.

Merzbacher emphasized the high level of international activity in the field, observing that the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, India, and Germany have all recently released or renewed national strategies for quantum technology. She said figures on how much China is spending on quantum science and technology are hard to verify but that the country’s commitment to the field is unmistakable. She estimated that while the U.S. leads the world in quantum computing, China is ahead in quantum communication, quantum sensors, and post-quantum cryptography, citing research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Workforce needs emphasized

The hearing also devoted significant attention to workforce development needs in the sector.

Lofgren recounted for instance how she was initially skeptical of introducing students to quantum science at the K–12 level but later became convinced it is helpful to expose them early since it is such a counterintuitive subject. She asked Emily Edwards, co-lead of the National Q–12 Education Partnership, whether a model curriculum for quantum physics at the pre-college level is under development. Edwards replied that an initial framework has been completed and called for creating at least one national center for quantum education and workforce tasked with fleshing out a model curriculum.

Addressing needs in higher education, Tahan proposed Congress support efforts to equip less research-intensive universities with the infrastructure necessary to educate students in QIS. “We need to get quantum computing test beds that students can learn in at a thousand schools, not 20 schools,” he said.

He also stressed the relevance of such skills beyond the quantum technology sector. “If you think about what it takes to build a quantum computer or a quantum sensor or a quantum network, what are the skills you need? How to design a circuit, how to do microwave and RF engineering, how to do programming — those skills, in any industry of the future, are going to be valuable.”

Tahan also noted the report from the advisory panel he co-chairs proposes actions to draw more people into the quantum workforce, such as creating new visa pathways for international scholars and new fellowship programs for U.S. citizens and permanent residents pursuing degrees in QIS-related fields.

“Training and recruiting talent, both here and across the world, are the most important actions we can take to strengthen U.S. leadership,” he argued.

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