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Congress eyes quantum research boost

Jun 6, 2023
Illustration of an atom with a coin as the nucleus.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Lawmakers are gearing up to expand a bipartisan quantum research and development effort aimed at boosting U.S. national security — and beating Beijing.

Driving the news: The House Science Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday to evaluate the first five years of the National Quantum Initiative Act — set to expire Sept. 30 — and what policies should be considered for its reauthorization.

What they're saying: Former Energy Department under secretary for science Paul Dabbar, who helped implement the NQIA, in his opening remarks will point to quantum developments at IBM, Google and Berkeley Lab as wins of the law. For the next iteration, Dabbar will say that:

  • Lawmakers should give DOE $200 million for a "post-Exascale" computing program that incorporates quantum (exascale computers can help build fusion power plants or maintain the country's nuclear deterrent).
  • Congress should catch up to China's satellite efforts and support a DOE/NASA quantum networking satellite and ground stations program authorized in the CHIPS and Science Act.
  • Funding should be allowed for programs between the U.S. and allies.

Why it matters: Quantum, though it comes with risks (think encryption-breaking abilities), has the potential to tackle big societal problems, including climate change and medicine access. Still, the U.S. lags competitors and allies alike in investing in it:

  • Chinese investment in quantum: $15.3 billion
  • EU investment: $7.2 billion
  • U.S. investment: $1.9 billion

State of play: Mandatory funding, which is usually reserved for programs like Social Security and Medicare, is unlikely to be included in the NQIA reauthorization bill.

  • The committee is exploring what authorization levels may be part of the bill, a Republican committee staffer said. Funding is ultimately up to appropriators.

What's happening: The NQIA turbocharged R&D efforts underway at the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology and Energy Department.

  • The goal of the next NQIA will aim to expand from fundamental research and development to include early-stage applied research, the Republican staffer said.
  • The added focus would give centers and agencies opportunities to explore how quantum computing could be adopted.
  • That could resemble, for example, a bipartisan proposal to stand-up a "sandbox" for public-private exploration.
  • Another Republican staffer pointed to the Energy Department's Office of Technology Transitions — which has come out with a blueprint for developing a "national quantum internet" and invested millions in new centers — as an area ripe for expansion.
  • Quantum workforce development through facilitating coordination between centers will also be a big focus.

Catch up fast: The CHIPS and Science Act authorized new investments for FY2024 to grow the quantum workforce and infrastructure.

  • $100 million for quantum network infrastructure
  • $31.5 million for quantum hardware and research cloud access
  • $16.5 million for Computational Sciences Graduate Fellowships

Quick take: More money actually being appropriated for quantum R&D programs is unlikely with a Republican-controlled House that just threatened to default on the nation's debt if spending weren't cut.

What's next: Republicans and Democrats on the committee are working on a bipartisan NQIA draft that they hope to share with stakeholders in the next few weeks.

  • House Science Chair Frank Lucas wants to avoid being overly prescriptive in the legislation in terms of how quantum computing should be used in the near or long term, his staffers said.
  • The committee is reviewing proposals from some members to have the Government Accountability Office study where quantum can be used in the federal government.
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