Congress Takes a Quantum Leap in the Name of National and Economic Security

By Emily Pappas

Last night, the chairmen and ranking members of House Science, Space and Technology Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee introduced bi-partisan legislation (H.R. 6227 and S. 3143) authorizing the establishment of a National Quantum Initiative.

You’re probably scratching your head and asking yourself, a national what?! Rest assured, that’s the common reaction.

Simply put – and according to experts in the field – quantum information science is based on exploiting subtle aspects of quantum physics for valuable, real-world technologies. These quantum technologies hold the promise of becoming the computers, networks and sensors of tomorrow. They can handle computationally complex problems, provide communication security and enhance navigation, imaging and other sensing technologies for sectors from health care to agriculture in ways that are now impossible using only conventional hardware. For these reasons, everyone from leaders in academia to defense contractors to tech sector innovators have been watching, waiting and lobbying for this legislation – a shot at centralizing the funding structure of quantum information science in the United States and protecting our economic and national security interest at home and abroad.

The Domestic and International Players 

There has been growing, widespread national interest in quantum information science over the past several years. Department of Energy (DOE), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have all been independently pursuing quantum initiatives. Late last year, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) brought Jake Taylor over from NIST to serve as Assistant Director for Quantum Information Science at OSTP, even though, as of today, the office of OSTP director remains vacant. In late June, the White House put more heft behind quantum at OSTP, forming a new subcommittee tasked with coordinating a national agenda on the role of the emerging technology. Meanwhile, privately-funded efforts at companies like Google, Honeywell, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Northrop Grumman as well as several startups and SMEs like IonQ, Inc. and Rigetti Computing are gaining momentum.

These efforts, however, stand in stark contrast to well-funded government initiatives in Europe, China, Australia and elsewhere. China is particularly aggressive in its commitment to quantum. The country launched a satellite devoted to quantum communication protocols and is spending $10 billion dollars to build a four million square foot facility and create the next Bletchley Park in Hefei. Similarly, in Europe, the EU Flagship Quantum Program is being funded at a price tag of $1.3 billion over 10 years.  

Congressional Momentum 

Early in 2017, there was a lot of talk about a large national infrastructure package aimed at rebuilding our nation’s roads, bridges and other systems. Wanting its piece of the pie, the House Science Committee chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) started exploring options to strengthen scientific infrastructure. Like much of our nation’s aging infrastructure, scientific breakthroughs from 60 and 70 years ago are now reaching their technological limits – a threat to US safety and security and our economic well-being. Anticipating this trend, academic and industry leaders have been searching for new approaches to information processing. Their answer? Quantum information science.

With dreams of an overall infrastructure package in its rearview mirror, the House Science Committee held a hearing in October 2017 to learn from the agencies – DOE, NSF and NIST – as well as industry and academic experts about the potential for American leadership in quantum technology. Testimony touched on several topics but witnesses echoed each other on gaps that exist between academic and government laboratories and private industry, which lacks a trained quantum engineering workforce. The hearing also made two things apparent: first, Chinese investment in quantum technology had captured the attention of Congress; and second, the House Science Committee had its sights set on an authorization strategy for a National Quantum Initiative.   

Meanwhile, other committees were exploring similar topics within their jurisdiction. The House Energy and Commerce Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee chaired by Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) held a hearing on quantum technology as part of its “Disruptor Series” in May 2018, and in the Senate, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) held hearings on American competitiveness and innovation as well as data security where quantum information science and technology were discussed.

What About Defense?

On the defense side of the equation – where the House Science and Senate Commerce Committees do not have jurisdiction – the FY 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed into law in December 2017 mandates the Pentagon to create a quantum research program. As part of the FY 2019 NDAA process, the House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee for Emerging Threats and Capabilities passed a proposal that called for increased emphasis on policy and programs to advance quantum computing, and the Senate Armed Services Committee passed language to authorize $20 million in support of quantum information sciences research. Additionally, the bill contains language to establish coordinated defense research efforts in the critical emerging technology areas of artificial intelligence and quantum information science. Beyond the NDAA, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced legislation earlier this month to require the Secretary of Defense to establish the Defense Quantum Information Consortium.

National Quantum Initiative Act 

While the FY 2018 NDAA mandate and the FY2019 NDAA funding are widely commended by industry and academia, there is a push to ensure that quantum research and technology goes beyond the defense and intelligence agencies where often, for security reasons, things tend to go “dark.”

The National Quantum Initiative Act introduced today by House Science Committee Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and in the Senate by Commerce Committee Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) will seek to, “bring a whole of government approach to moving quantum information science to the next level of research and development.” But the bills are slightly different. The House bill authorizes over $1.2 billion over five years to fund a National Quantum Initiative. Funding will be distributed between NSF, NIST and DOE for research and education centers with OSTP coordinating the effort. The Senate version mirrors the House bill but left out a five-year authorization of $125 million per year for DOE to establish a national research centers – an 11th hour decision driven by blurred lines in jurisdiction between Senate Commerce and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  

What’s Next?

The House Science Committee will mark-up its bill today while the Senate Commerce Committee is planning for a late July mark-up of its companion legislation. Meanwhile, plans by the Senate Energy Committee – a late comer to the quantum discuss but an integral player – to introduce legislation remain unclear. But even if the bills clear these hurdles, the appropriations process could prove more challenging given the hefty price tag for the National Quantum Initiative. And then, if the funding is appropriated, where will the National Quantum Initiative centers be located? It’s a given that some members are already discussing the impact of a center in his or her district. 

Another thing to sort out will be where, if at all, the civilian and non-civilian lanes merge. The “whole government” approach taken by the House Science Committee does not include the defense and intelligence community for obvious, jurisdictional reasons. But could National Quantum Initiative activities be closely coordinated with efforts by the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and the Naval Research laboratory (NRL), and various Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC) and University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) facilities?

And let’s not forget about the NDAA and its funding for quantum information sciences research. While lawmakers are optimistic they can push the NDAA through by August, nothing is for certain anymore. 

When everything is said and done, this is the first 10K of a marathon – there has been tremendous progress yet there are mountains ahead. Whether your interests are in the field of defense, technology, computing, academia or beyond, Cogent has been in the trenches on quantum and brings to the table unmatched expertise. We know the key players shaping these bills on the committees of jurisdiction, we know the stakeholders who have their ears and we know the messages that are compelling members, agency officials and the White House to act. Big or small, companies and institutions will be affected differently by the direction these bills take. Our senior policy and communications professionals can help you navigate the waters.

Emily Pappas is policy and communications strategist at Cogent Strategies specializing in healthcare, technology, energy and academia. Her expertise is in designing local and national campaigns that influence Washington’s top policymakers. Emily is adept at building and managing coalitions to advance client agendas. She has successfully united competitors in support of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, Cancer Moonshot and National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, and to apply pressure on the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve adult obesity medications, among other coalitions. For Emily’s complete bio, click here