Quantum physics gets attention—and brighter funding prospects—in Congress

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Ions trapped between gold blades serve as information-carrying qubits in a prototype quantum computer.


Many members of Congress admit they find quantum physics mind-boggling, with its counterintuitive account of the subatomic world. But that isn’t stopping U.S. lawmakers, as well as policymakers in President Donald Trump’s administration, from backing an emerging effort to better organize and boost funding for quantum research, which could reshape computing, sensors, and communications.

In the coming weeks, the science committee of the House of Representatives is expected to introduce legislation calling for a new, 10-year-long National Quantum Initiative (NQI). The White House, for its part, is scheduled to formally launch a new panel that will guide the federal government’s role in quantum science. Key science agencies are calling on Congress to accelerate spending on quantum research. And the Senate supports a boost for the field: Last week, it approved a mammoth defense policy bill that includes a provision directing the Pentagon to create a new $20 million quantum science program.

A yearlong push by a coalition of academic researchers and technology firms helped trigger this flurry of activity. Proponents argue the United States needs a better plan for harvesting the potential fruits of quantum research—and for keeping up with global competitors. The European Union has launched a decadelong quantum research initiative, and China is said to be investing heavily in the field. The United States is “kind of the only major country that’s not doing something,” says Chris Monroe, a physicist at the University of Maryland in College Park and co-founder of a startup developing quantum computers, which could outstrip conventional computers on certain problems.

Last June, a small group of academics, executives, and lobbyists that includes Monroe released a white paper calling for an NQI; they issued a blueprint for the effort in April. Meanwhile, the House science committee held a hearing on the topic last October and plans to release a bill later this month that draws extensively from the blueprint.

“We must ensure that the United States does not fall behind other nations that are advancing quantum programs,” Science committee chair Lamar Smith (R–TX) said yesterday in a statement about the bill.

The legislation will authorize the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create new research centers at universities, federal laboratories, and nonprofit research institutes, according to a committee spokesperson. These research hubs would aim to build alliances between physicists doing fundamental research, engineers who can build devices, and computer scientists developing quantum algorithms. The centers could give academics seeking to develop commercial technologies access to expertise and expensive research tools, says physicist David Awschalom of the University of Chicago in Illinois, one of the blueprint’s authors. “The research needs rapidly outpace any individual lab,” he says.

The proposal “sounds really promising,” says Danna Freedman, a chemist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who did not contribute to the proposal. But Freedman, who synthesizes materials that could be used to build new kinds of quantum computer components, says her enthusiasm “depends to what extent the government decides to prescribe the research.”

The blueprint recommends that the hubs focus on three areas: developing ultraprecise quantum sensors for biomedicine, navigation, and other applications; hack-proof quantum communication; and quantum computers. The bill will likely leave it up to federal agencies, the new White House quantum panel, and an outside advisory group to determine the initiative’s focus. Backers also say the effort could help advance the development of software for quantum computers—a major hurdle. Right now, just “tens or hundreds of people” can program quantum computers, says William Zeng of Rigetti Computing, a startup in Berkeley, California, seeking to build a quantum computer and offer quantum computing services. “That’s not going to be able to support building the full potential of the tech.”

It’s not yet known how much funding the House bill, which Republicans on the science panel are crafting, will recommend. The blueprint envisions channeling $800 million over 5 years to the NQI, but even if the bill endorses that figure, congressional appropriators will have the final say. Also uncertain is whether Democrats will sign on and help ensure passage through the full House, and whether the Senate will support the idea.

In the meantime, lawmakers and the Trump administration are moving to shore up federal spending on quantum science, which analysts in 2016 estimated at about $200 million a year. Adding to the $20 million boost approved by the Senate (but not yet by the entire Congress), Trump’s 2019 budget request would create a new $30 million “Quantum Leap” initiative at NSF and boost DOE’s quantum research programs to $105 million.

The United States, long seen as a leader, is facing growing global competition in the quantum field, says Walter Copan, director of the National Institutes of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which has long played a role in quantum research. “It is the equivalent of a space race now,” says Copan, who met last week with Smith. Focusing federal resources on the field, Copan adds, “has phenomenal promise for the country—if it’s done right.”

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