The Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act yesterday, an important legislative package aimed at ramping up federal support for U.S. research and development to better compete with China. The Act rightly provides funding for research in quantum information science and technology to enhance the competitive advantage of the United States in the global economy. But there are three ways in which adding provisions for a National Quantum Computing Research Task Force to the final bill could better support U.S. economic growth.
As the name suggests, the goal of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act is to empower U.S. competitiveness. While investing in research for foundational technologies like quantum computing is an important first step toward that goal, it is not enough on its own because research needs to be oriented toward topics and ideas that are more likely to increase productivity and create new businesses, products, and jobs. Researchers also need to have sufficient access to research infrastructure, meaning the facilities, resources, and services they use to conduct research and foster innovation in their fields.
As the House considers the bill, it should add a provision in the Act that requires the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish a task force in charge of developing a roadmap for a national quantum computing research cloud, which can better ensure quantum computing research drives U.S. economic growth in three ways. First, the task force should create a national cloud resource that provides academic researchers with affordable access to high-end quantum computing infrastructure. Second, it should create a strategic plan to commercialize academic research. And third, it should broaden access to quantum computing by ensuring Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) have equitable access to a national quantum research cloud.
1. Provide Academic Researchers With Affordable Access to Quantum Computers for Foundational Research the Private Sector Won’t Do
Quantum computing technologies are still in the very early stages and the road to maturity and diffusion is long. The first step in the innovation process is what Princeton Professor Donald Stokes called “Pasteur’s’ quadrant” research—basic research directed at a specific challenge or problem. This type of research provides foundational, generic knowledge that industry can draw on for ideas and innovation. The problem is, the private sector is not sufficiently incentivized to conduct fundamental research because they are almost never able to retain all the benefits of that research; it spills over into the knowledge commons and competitors are able to capitalize on it.
This is where academic research comes in. Over the past two decades, universities have played an increasingly large role in the U.S. innovation system by conducting crucial early-stage research. In fact, of the nearly 4,500 quantum computing papers published worldwide on Scopus in 2020, 68 percent of papers were primarily affiliated with universities, 27 percent with government-funded labs, and only 5 percent with private companies that include Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Intel. University-based research in quantum computing is therefore crucial to expanding the knowledge pool from which firms draw the information necessary to conduct later-stage R&D, and ultimately bring innovations to the market.
However, because quantum computers are very specialized and expensive to develop, few universities provide access to these systems to support research activities. Instead, most academic researchers access these systems through quantum clouds—services that provide remote access to quantum systems through existing Internet infrastructure. Companies such as Amazon and Microsoft have already begun to make access to quantum computers available through their quantum computing-as-a-service (QCaaS) offerings, which are fully managed services that enable researchers and developers to begin experimenting with systems from multiple quantum hardware providers in a single place. Even with declining computing costs though, the costs and know-how for using advanced computing, including QCaaS solutions, will remain out of reach for many academic researchers.
A National Quantum Research Task Force could address this problem by establishing a National Quantum Research Cloud that provides academic researchers with affordable access to high-end quantum computing resources in a secure cloud environment, as well as the necessary training they need to make the most of it. This could be analogous to the National AI Research Resource Task Force and consist of members from academia, government, and industry. Their goal should be to develop a roadmap for building, deploying, funding, and governing a national quantum computing research cloud that can accelerate academic access to quantum computing for research in the public interest.
2. Accelerate the Pathway from Basic Research to Market By Guiding Support for University Research with a National Quantum Strategy
Supporting the incubation and growth of quantum computing startups is of strategic economic importance to the United States because while startups may be a small share of all quantum computing businesses, they also contribute to innovation.
Many of the most successful quantum computing companies and startups today are university offshoots because they can make use of university research facilities and skills for their commercial needs. For example, D-Wave started as an offshoot of the University of British Columbia in Canada, IonQ from a collaboration between the University of Maryland and Duke University, and Zappata Computing came from Harvard. The University of Oxford, which is consistently among the top 10 universities with the most published quantum computing papers, has two successful quantum computing spinouts and two additional quantum cryptography offshoots.
It is not enough for the United States to just spur more startups by providing academic researchers with access to more hardware resources or other “ingredients” for innovation. The U.S. government should focus on key sectors by incubating, scaling, and growing quantum computing startups in the highest value-added sectors of economic activity, such as manufacturing, renewable energy, and transportation.
And that is precisely what a National Quantum Research Task Force can do. A task force should create a long-term strategy for academic research that links continued support to expectations, incentives, and requirements for commercialization and production domestically in high-priority sectors. More generally, a research task force could ensure that U.S. investments in academic research are guided by wider innovation and competitiveness strategies. For instance, the Quantum Economic Development Consortium (QED-C), an industry-led consortium established by the National Quantum Initiative Act, conducted a workshop in 2019 that identified “cryogenic capabilities that, if realized, would accelerate the pace of research and innovation and enable development and deployment of quantum technologies.” A National Quantum Research Task Force could ensure these priorities guide the support given to academic researchers.
3. Ensure Broader Access to Quantum Computing
One way to ensure broad access to quantum computing is to expand quantum computing resources at Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs).
While Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) make up 3 percent of U.S. institutions of higher education, they enroll 16 percent of all African-American students, while Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) enroll 40 percent of all Hispanic-Americans. And demand for quantum computing at many of these institutions is high. In 2020, IBM established an HBCU quantum program to provide these institutions with access to quantum computers, and in just six months membership almost doubled from 13 to 23 HBCUs.
A National Quantum Research Task Force should consider how to provide equitable access to a national research cloud to all MSIs, as well as women who are also traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering. By creating a roadmap for a National Quantum Research Cloud that all researchers can access equally, the United States can also build regional capacity, reduce geographic disparity, and drive economic growth.
In the end, the greatest case for amending the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act to include a provision for a national quantum research task force is that it will help the bill better achieve its goal: bolstering U.S. economic growth.
Image credits: Flickr user Gregory Hauenstein