Quantum technologies, a relatively new field, make use of the sometimes “counter-intuitive behaviour governed by quantum physics”, which usually appears in systems the size of a few atoms. It’s application has seen the development of new technologies that include cameras that can see around corners, gravity sensors that can see underground and un-hackable communications systems.
However, according to a new inquiry by MPs on the Science and Technology Committee, the government could be doing more to foster the development of quantum technologies in the UK, given that they could grow to be worth as much as the consumer electronics manufacturing sector – some £240 billion per year worldwide.
The Committee notes that over the past few decades, intensive research has shown the extent to which quantum behaviour can be controlled and put to use, enabling the development of a “new generation of quantum technologies with superior or sometimes revolutionary capabilities” compared to conventional alternatives.
Given the potential for economic growth, MPs are keen for the government to fully embrace the opportunity of quantum tech.
The government has already established a world-leading Quantum Technologies Programme, which saw the UK invest £270 million between 2013 and 2018. This initial investment comprised of four National Hubs, spread across multiple networks of universities, as well as Centres for Doctoral Training, funding for innovation and demonstrator projects, and the establishment of a Quantum Metrology Institute at the National Physical Laboratory.
Earlier this year the government announced a new round of funding, totally £315 million, to support the next phase of the National Quantum TEchnologies Programme.
Whilst the Committee welcomes the continuation of the programme, it believes that more can be done with it.
Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, said:
“Quantum technologies promise great benefits for the UK’s prosperity and security. We welcome the Government’s important decision to fund a second phase of the National Quantum Technologies Programme, to seize the transformational opportunity that quantum technologies offer.
“Despite being world leaders in this field, there are still areas that we must improve and work on to stay ahead of the game. Identifying markets which could benefit from the use of quantum technologies must be a priority for any new Executive Board, as must the provision of a skilled, multi-disciplined workforce.
“Quantum technologies also offer exciting opportunities for the UK’s national security as well as for economic prosperity. The Government must ensure that the second phase of the Programme gives equal priority to benefitting the country’s national security as well as its prosperity.”
The Committee’s report makes a number of recommendations for the government to improve upon its previous efforts. Firstly, it urges the government to establish a new Executive Board to oversee the second phase of the Programme, which should have a clearly defined mission statement and be held accountable for delivering it.
The mission statement should include an overall aim to support the development of a UK quantum technology industry that delivers the maximum economic, national security and societal benefit for the UK public as a whole.
It suggests that the Executive Board should comprise representatives from academia, SMEs, large companies, standards bodies, regulators and the government, including national security and defence organisations.
Furthermore, it should produce a detailed roadmap for the future potential markets for quantum technologies in the UK. This roadmap should be used to identify potential obstacles to the development and commercialisation of the technologies and define a strategy to overcome them.
Secondly, the second phase of the Programme should see the establishment of Innovation Centres – something that the government has yet to do.
Innovation centres should, according to the Committee, proved access to facilities for developing, manufacturing, testing and validating quantum technologies, as well as act as focal points around which collaboration and supply chains can consolidate. As a result, the Centres should exist as physical centres, rather than ‘virtual networks’.
Thirdly, the Committee highlights the “significant concern” in the quantum tech community that the future development of the technologies in the UK could be constrained by the lack of a suitably skilled workforce.
It notes that whilst the existing training programmes under the National Quantum Technologies Programme are well regarded, increasing and improving the training offered must be a priority for the second phase.
The government must ensure that appropriate training is available at undergraduate, technician and apprenticeship level, alongside provision at PhD level.
Finally, the Committee notes that despite the potential for economic growth, quantum technologies also have important implications for national security. The report states:
“The Government must ensure that the second phase of the National Quantum Technologies Programme gives equal priority to benefitting the UK’s national security and its prosperity. There should be good co-ordination between military and civil aspects of future quantum technologies in all components of the second phase of the National Programme.
“Although foreign investment in the UK is almost always benign and welcome, there is the potential for certain transactions that increase foreign influence over British entities to pose significant threats to national security.
“In addition to the voluntary regime for national security and investment recently proposed by the Government, we recommend that the Government establishes a mandatory notification regime for enterprises researching, developing, producing or supplying services involving quantum technologies, when they are first approached by foreign entities with offers of investment.”
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