Quantum computing and more generally Quantum Information Science (QIS) are more than ever on the global agenda.
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We focus here on the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme and policy, and how the UK fares in the race to quantum technologies. This article is part of our ongoing research on the issue. With the first item of the series, we started covering the Netherlands, the EU, Germany (briefly), the U.S., China, and, for the private sector, IBM and the Softbank’s mega Vision Fund, with an interesting participation of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (see Quantum, AI, and Geopolitics (3): Mapping The Race for Quantum Computing, 17 December 2018).
Read also the follow up article adding to the mapping:
At the end of the article, we update our evaluation of the race to quantum with two series of graphs showing the evolution of public funding over time. A first series focuses on countries in Europe plus the U.S., then, a second, adds China.
An early start, driven by the Ministry of Defence
A National Security Concern
In February 2012, the UK “National Security Through Technology” white paper recommended that the defence and security R&D should evolve to meet the new threat (DSTL/PUB098369 – 2016: 5.2.12, 6.1.12, 6.1.13). As a result, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) decided to emulate the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA (Ibid.). Between 20% and 30% of MoD research will be devoted “to investigate, and develop rapidly, promising technologies which have the potential to achieve game changing and disruptive advantage” (Ibid.).
Quantum technologies were now directly part of the British security agenda.
Indeed, this led not only to development within the MoD, as it developed specific quantum programs, but also spurred the evolution towards a nation-wide quantum policy. Incidentally, the UK showed more agility than the U.S., which only started a comprehensive “quantum 2.0” policy much later, in 2018 (see Mapping The Race for Quantum Computing first article).
Thus, in November 2013, the UK MoD Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), in partnership with the Royal Society, organised the Chicheley Hall meeting, which is now seen as the starting point for the British Quantum 2.0 strategic policy. This meeting gathered “leading academics, representatives from industry and relevant government departments”, to “explore how the UK might exploit emerging quantum technologies for the benefit of defence, security and the wider UK economy” (DSTL/PUB75620 – 2014; DSTL/PUB098369 – 2016).
Beside the 2012 white paper, that the MoD would be the driving force behind the British Quantum efforts should come as no surprise. Indeed, the UK MoD has identified quantum science and technologies as disruptive and demanding consideration at least since 2007 in its strategic foresight document Global Strategic Trends (see third edition 2007 out to 2036; fourth edition 2010 out to 2040; fifth edition 2014 up to 2045; and of course the latest sixth edition 2018 out to 2050 – for more on what is strategic foresight and how to do it, see our methodological section and our philosophy).
Once again, as highlighted in our introductory article on QIS, this shows how much international security and geopolitical concerns motivate the current focus on quantum technologies, beyond fundamental scientific research (see “The Coming Quantum Computing Disruption, Artificial Intelligence and Geopolitics (1)“).
A Quantum National Policy to Benefit the UK
As a result of these early concerns, the UK was one of the first countries to mobilise a strategic and coordinated framework for the QIS, with a budget of £270 million (approx. $397,61 million1) over five years, announced in 2013 (Gov.uk, “Quantum technologies: a new era for the UK“, 23 March 2015; Olivier Ezratty, “Qui gagnera la bataille de l’ordinateur quantique ?“, La Tribune, 25 July 2018). This led to the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme (UKNQT), started in 2014.
Funding is granted through a variety of British bodies: the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research (EPSRC), Innovate UK, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the National Physical Laboratory, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN). This reflects the comprehensiveness of the program, as well as the need to design a whole of government approach.
New funding on top of scientific funding, not instead of it
It is important to emphasise that this policy framework comes on top of classical funding of scientific research (i.e. research, training and fellowships), not instead of it (Pr David Delpy, PowerPoint Presentation, The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, EPSRC, 7 March 2014). The new UKNQT program is truly aimed at transforming scientific findings “to exploit the potential of quantum science and develop a range of emerging technologies with the potential to benefit the UK ” (Ibid., slide 2). It thus also needs research in quantum mechanics and related fields to continue.
In 2013, classical national funding for quantum research through the EPSRC reached approximately £30 million (Final report and recommendations: Encouraging a British Invention Revolution: Sir Andrew Witty’s Review of Universities and Growth, October 2013 p.24). In 2015 and 2016, it was around £65 million (DSTL/PUB098369).2
As of today, the overall EPSRC portfolio for quantum represents £179,67 million (yet still only 3.27% of the whole portfolio), including the £120,69 million for the UKNQT Hubs (the largest grey bubble in the diagram below), we shall detail next. We may thus assume that the funding available for what we called “classical” research, i.e. outside the national policy comprehensive framework, is £58,98 million over five years (usual length of funding).3
The overall quantum funding is awarded to 21 “research organisations”, mostly universities. We should however also consider – for further research – the specificities of British Universities in general and of each of them in particular, as they have their own specific sources of funding, through trusts, charities, endowments and others.
Building a dynamic ecosystem to be at the forefront of the race
As displayed above, the EPSRC visualisation tool also provides us with a break-down by sector of interest for future research application. There, we note that £91.5 million are referenced as belonging to “no sector relevance identified” (the larger bubble). This impossibility to identify a relevant sector highlights the challenge quantum stakeholders face: uncertainty and difficulty to imagine a future including quantum technologies (see “★ Quantum, AI, and Geopolitics (2): The Quantum Computing Battlefield and the Future“, 19 November 2018 – Articles starting with a ★ are premium articles, members-only. The introduction remains nonetheless open access.).
In turn, it is hard to convince investors and funders to participate in the quantum effort for long enough. Meanwhile, it is difficult to find users, to interest them in the QIS and to get them to be ready for the coming revolution. It is all the more complex that we do not know yet with certainty the whole range of future usages for QIS.
Being able to mobilise around QIS not only scientists and a select few, but also all future users, including industries, is a crucial challenge for the sector. Those who will succeed best in their mobilization effort are likely to be at the top of the race and to lead the future quantum world.
The UK Quantum national policy and notably the technological hubs are one way to overcome this hurdle and to mobilise the country.
Out of the overall national policy funding, as we saw, £120 million is devoted to the creation of four quantum hubs. Starting in December 2014, they operationalise public-private research-industry partnerships. They thus highlight and construct the comprehensive character of the British quantum policy.
Each hub contributes to make sure that QIS are developed practically. Indeed, through them and the funding available for industry and partners from the hubs – and vice-versa, as well as through common projects, potential users become stakeholders in QIS development. Meanwhile, the hubs allow for understanding of QIS. How and why to use quantum technologies may progressively emerge.
As a result, the hubs somehow co-develop QIS with the ability to imagine and foresee the usage of quantum technologies. The UK position in the race and for the emerging quantum revolution world is thus enhanced.
The British Quantum Hubs
The National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Metrology
The UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Metrology focuses on one part of the QIS, sensors and metrology.
It received an initial grant funding of £35,51 million (from 01-12-2014 to 30-11-2019 – EPSRC)
Led by the University of Birmingham, it includes the Universities of Glasgow, Nottingham, Southampton, Strathclyde and Sussex and over 70 industry partners. It is organised according to practical applications in six main sectors: defence, transport, manufacturing, oil and gas, civil engineering and healthcare.
This hub focuses on Quantum Enhanced Imaging and develops ultra-high sensitivity camera. It seeks to align with “industry priorities”. Applications “include visualising gas leaks, seeing through smoke, and even looking round corners or underneath our skin” (UKNQT Hubs).
It received as initial grant £23,06 million (from 01-12-2014 to 30-11-2019 – EPSRC)
NQIT or the Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub
Its approach is through “a networked, hybrid light-matter approach to quantum information processing”. Besides, it also fosters “industrial engagement“, “to ensure uptake of early spin-out technologies and to identify new opportunities for user-driven applications”. NQIT has also singled out the Space sector for quantum computing and simulation demonstration (website).
The Quantum Communications Hub
The Quantum Communications Hub focuses on the development of quantum communication through the construction and operation of quantum links, using notably quantum key distribution (QKD) systems. It received an initial grant funding of £24,1 million (from 01-12-2014 to 30-11-2019 – EPSRC).
On 26 March 2019, BT and the Universities of Cambridge and York launched the first 125km UK Quantum Network (UKQN) link – UKQNtel, linking BT’s Research Labs at Adastral Park and the Cambridge Engineering Department at Cambridge Science Park (“Hub partners collaborate to extend the UK’s Quantum Network into the Telecommunications Industry“, 1 April 2019).
The link is built over optical fibre, and its construction involved two other companies, Innovation Martlesham, a cluster of high-tech ICT companies located at Adastral Park, and one of its company, ADVA and ID Quantique (Ibid., “Quantum Network Link Launched at Adastral Park“, 28 March 2019).
Consequently, the building of the link allowed stressing the industrial comprehensiveness of the program.
This links represents the first stage of the planned British “large scale Quantum Network test-bed” (see Pr Tim Spiller, University of York, “Quantum Communications Hub“, slide 18, May 2016).
It positions strongly the UK in this specific aspect of the race, as shown in the summarised slide below depicting the main advances up to December 2018 (Helene Lavoix, Presentation for ICoQC 2018 – The Quantum Battlefield and the Future, 30 November 2018, Paris, France, slide 7).
MOD quantum funding
Meanwhile, the MOD also develops specific quantum application, as we could expect considering the role played in driving forward the overall British policy. For the initial five years program (2014-2019), the overall funding of the Dstl program reached approximately £36 million. It is thus on a par with each of the civilian hubs.
It includes “two demonstrators: a quantum navigation system, and a quantum gravity imager, and (as at July 2016) 46 PhD projects” (DSTL/PUB098369: 46-53).
We are reaching the end of the first UK NQT effort. When the program started, the UK was, with China, one of the few countries with a quantum policy. Now, many other countries have joined in what became a race. Efforts thus must continue.
Chariots of Fire: a marathon and not a sprint
In November 2018, the UK pursued its strategy and extended the National Quantum Technologies Program. It announced a £235 million funding boost, which includes establishing a new National Quantum Computing Centre, on top of ” £80 million announced in September for the continuation of 4 quantum development hubs and means the UK’s pioneering programme will receive £315 million ($414,42 million) between 2019 and 2024″ (gov.uk, “New funding puts UK at the forefront of cutting edge quantum technologies“, 1 November 2018).
Finally, on 13 June 2019, the government announced a new £153 million programme through “the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) funding, alongside £205 million from industry”, to “support commercialisation of quantum technologies” (Innovate UK and UK Research and Innovation “New £153 million programme to commercialise UK’s quantum tech“, Gov.uk, 13 June 2019).
As the ISCF corresponds to a four year efforts, we may tentatively estimate that the corresponding yearly fundings – to allow for comparison across countries – are £38,25 million ($50,32 million) for the public part and £51,25 million ($67,42 million) for the industry’s share.
As a result the UK may stress that the overall amount of combined investment in quantum technology “will pass a major £1 billion investment milestone since its inception in 2014” (Gov.uk, press release, “£1 billion investment makes UK a frontrunner in quantum technologies“, 13 June 2019). The communication effort as well as the title of the press release emphasises the global competition at work in the field.
Over the coming five years, between 2019 and 2024, the UK Quantum effort will thus benefit at least from a £63 million ($82,88 million) yearly public budget for the National Policy. To this we may add an estimated yearly £60 million for “classical scientific research”. Finally, if we add the 13 June 2019 announcement (until 2023, thus over four years), we have for the overall quantum effort £161,25 million ($212,13 million) yearly public funding and a supplementary yearly £51,25 million ($67,42 million) from the industry.
As a result, the race for quantum, with the UK NQT added, for the public sector mainly, now looks as on the following series of graphs:
The state of the race to quantum without China
The state of the race to quantum with China
Next steps for the analysis of the race to quantum
Now, considering the peculiar characteristics of the race (see Mapping The Race for Quantum Computing), a view from the bottom-up must be added to the analysis. There we shall need to pay attention to the importance of ecosystems, to competition alongside international collaboration. This is work in progress, besides continuing adding new actors to our mapping.
Meanwhile, we are also working on the creation of an indicator that we currently call “quantum readiness” and that will allow for positioning the various actors according to the race and to the future world.
Notes and Bibliography
Featured image: Chicheley Hall by User: dronir [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
1 The UK program corresponded approximately to $440 million (CRS) before the Brexit and the related attack against the British Pound. To consider the fall of the pound, we estimate that half of the program is at the much lower rate of 1.315 USD to GBP (average of yearly average rate from 2016 to mid 2019). We thus obtain an exchange rate of 1,4726 for the first program. We shall use this rate for all corresponding dates. The UK NQT 1, as a result, reaches an overall amount of $397,61 million. We shall use for the following years the average rate of 1.315 as an approximation.
2 The length for the funding is not mentioned in the reports. EPSRCs funding is usually granted over five years programs. We thus assume that the figures given are each for a five years period. We shall retain these in our graphs. They are indeed an approximation of the cumul of all the yearly fundings received for a year.
3The earliest EPSRC funding found was in the year 2006. It corresponded then to approximately £0,53 million a year, to increase then over the years.
Pritchard, Jonathan, and Stephen Till. ed. “A perspective of UK Quantum Technology prepared by and for the UK Quantum Technology Community: UK Quantum Technology Landscape 2016”. DSTL/PUB098369 – 2016.
David Delpy, PowerPoint Presentation, The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, EPSRC, 7 March 2014.