Funding needed for further U.S. research and development of quantum information sciences (QIS) and the computing and other advances that QIS is expected to yield, along with the pressing need to develop a highly skilled workforce to leverage those expected advances, dominated discussion today at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee examining the Department of Energy’s (DoE) efforts in the QIS field.

Prominent in the discussion of R&D funding was DoE’s announcement yesterday of $218 million in funding for 85 QIS-related research projects led by scientists at 28 institutions of higher learning and nine DoE national laboratories.  The research work will cover a range of topics including hardware and software for quantum computing and the creation of new materials with quantum properties, DoE said.

Separately, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced $31 million of funding for fundamental quantum research aimed at creating systems and proof-of-concept validations in quantum sensing communications, computing, and simulations, among other topics.

The White House has also placed a focus on advancing QIS through a new national quantum strategy released by the National Science and Technology Council Monday.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., applauded the DoE and NSF funding announcements at today’s hearing. She also said DoE plans to invest another $100 million in quantum research next year, and urged the agency to expand its research funding.

“There is a clear Federal role in making these science investments,” she said, which will help to ensure U.S. competitiveness in the QIS field “while other countries like China are investing billions in research.”

“Our nation has never shied away from tackling the biggest challenges,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the committee, of the development of quantum information science technologies. “The potential reward is tremendous,” she added.

Sen. Murkowski said she was glad to be working with members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on quantum legislation. The House earlier this month approved H.R.6227, the National Quantum Initiative Act, which would coordinate a Federal program to accelerate quantum research and development “for the economic and national security” of the United States.  The Senate Commerce committee approved a companion bill in August.

Paul Dabbar, DoE’s Under Secretary for Science, said at today’s hearing that the agency’s national laboratories would be a good choice to “anchor” QIS R&D efforts.

On the quantum workforce front, Todd Holmdahl, vice president-quantum at Microsoft, said workforce should be a major area of quantum-related investment along with basic research and development.  There are “very few people who are ready” to work in the quantum field practically, he said. “We recommend on-the-job training for engineers in the field,” he said, adding, “Many have the foundation [in quantum] but don’t have all the skills.”

Holmdahl said Microsoft established several quantum research centers around the world after deciding “there is no way we were going to be able to get enough physicists to go” to Redmond, Wash., where the company is headquartered.

“We need to continue to work on this quantum workforce,” he said, adding his view that “the rest of the world is a little ahead” of the U.S. in building its quantum engineering workforce.

Dr. Supratik Guha, a professor at the University of Chicago and senior science advisor at the Argonne National Laboratory, said the U.S. needs more “engineers who know how to do quantum mechanics.” He added that the “U.S. is still in a leadership position in quantum information science…We need to build on this.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.