The UK’s national quantum strategy is a plan we can all believe in


James McKenzie is impressed by the UK government’s new 10-year National Quantum Strategy

Map of United Kingdom on digital pixelated display
First mover The UK is already on to its second national 10-year quantum strategy. (Courtesy: iStock/da-kuk)

If you’re a news junkie, you may have noticed the UK government announce its National Quantum Strategy – a new, 10-year programme of investment in quantum technology worth £2.5bn. Doubling previous commitments, the plan is intended to let the UK maintain its competitive edge in a field in which the country has long held a commanding position. Now if you’re wondering if the programme is really as good as it sounds, let me reassure you – before we go any further – it really is.

In terms of sheer financial muscle, China and America are the dominating forces in quantum tech. Estimates suggest that the Chinese government has invested at least $25bn since the mid-1980s in the field, with global management consultants McKinsey & Company reporting in 2021 that China had committed $15.3bn in public funds for quantum computing alone. That’s more than double that of the EU ($7.2bn) and eight times as much as the US ($1.9bn). Japan was fourth with $1.8bn and the UK fifth with $1.3bn.

The precise details of what China is spending its quantum-computing money on are unclear. But China also has a global lead in quantum communication, although this is a sector with less commercial potential given that several countries have raised questions over whether Chinese communications firms can be fully trusted. Late last year, for example, the US banned five Chinese telecoms equipment providers: Daha, Hikvision, Huawei, Hytera Communications and ZTE.

In terms of sheer financial muscle, China and America are the dominating forces in quantum tech

But the US is certainly not holding back in quantum tech. In 2018 it launched a $1.275bn National Quantum Initiative to “accelerate quantum research and development for the economic and national security of the US”. Later that year, it set up a National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science, which led to various activities including three Quantum Leap Challenges Institutes, a Quantum Foundry, a Center for Quantum Networks, five Quantum Information Science Centers, and plans for a nationwide quantum internet.

With support from the National Institute of Science and Technology, the US also created a Quantum Economic Development Consortium, which aims to build links between industry, academia and government to nurture the “quantum ecosystem” and develop supply chains. In January this year, the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) released its third annual report, which indicated that the US had spent a staggering $918m on quantum technology in 2022.

European efforts

In Europe, the EU launched its decade-long Quantum Technologies Flagship in 2018, which aims to support hundreds of quantum researchers, with an expected budget of €1bn. Although the McKinsey analysis says that the EU spends the third highest amount on quantum computing, the figure is a little misleading as it implies all 27 EU countries are acting in unison, which is not necessarily the case. Still, individual EU nations, notably France, Germany and the Netherlands, also have their own national programmes.

The French announced their National Strategy for Quantum Technologies in January 2021, with some $1.8bn of funds for research, students and tech transfer. Germany’s quantum strategy kicked off in 2018 with $3.1bn of support, while the Dutch Quanta Delta NL project was set up in 2019 with $740m in funding over seven years. Canada, Israel, Japan, Russia, Singapore and South Korea all have significant national programmes launched from 2018 onwards.

So where does that leave the latest UK project? It is in fact the country’s second 10-year quantum plan, with the UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme having been launched as far back as 2013. That first programme has already led to a national network of very effective quantum-technology hubs in quantum sensors and metrology (Birmingham), quantum communications (York), quantum enhanced imaging (Glasgow), and quantum computing (Oxford).

Seeking to develop and commercialize new technology, the hubs are a key part of a growing quantum industry in the UK offering expertise, facilities and incubation support in their specific areas. As I recently mentioned, it’s working well with a total of 46 quantum-tech firms having been set up in the country over the last decade as of the end of 2022 (according to Anchored-In). Together they have raised more than £346m in investment and now employ 850 people.

Quantum-enabled economy

The visionaries behind the original UK programme have close links with the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World. They were none other than Sir Peter Knight, who was IOP president from 2011–2013, and David Delpy – the IOP’s current honorary treasurer who chaired the UK quantum programme from 2014–2019. In fact, as a recent IOP report made clear, the IOP continues to provide valuable input and evidence into the new UK government strategy

The UK’s first quantum programme has been a huge success, giving the country leading capabilities in quantum computing, sensors and timing, imaging and communications, and helped to build their path to market. The government has funded 139 projects involving 141 quantum organizations through Innovate UK’s Quantum Technologies Challenge alone. In fact, the UK is second only to the US in terms of the number of quantum companies and second in attracting private investment, ahead of other competitors in Europe.

The UK’s new National Quantum Strategy aims to make the country a leading quantum-enabled economy by 2033. By then, the government envisages quantum technology will be an integral part of the UK’s digital infrastructure and manufacturing base, driving growth and helping to build a thriving and resilient economy and society. It will get there by spending £2.5bn over the coming decade, generating an additional £1bn of private investment in the programme (see box).

The UK’s new quantum-technology strategy is extremely well-thought out and targeted

People and skills are at the heart of the strategy, which is sensible because it always pays to invest in new talent when a field is just starting. In fact, the programme will see a further £25m over the next two years (and more after that), which will go on the launch of new doctoral training centres and fellowships, a Quantum Skills Taskforce, an industry-placement scheme and a quantum apprentice programme. There will even be a new “Office for Quantum” in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to get things moving.

For me, the UK’s new quantum-technology strategy builds on the existing decade of experience it has in this area, which makes it extremely well-thought out and targeted. I am sure it will deliver – and probably exceed – the UK’s goals as the country has a clear “first-mover” advantage in many areas of quantum 2.0. The full 61-page UK government strategy is well worth a read.

The UK’s National Quantum Strategy

Published in March 2023, the UK’s National Quantum Strategy builds on the county’s National Quantum Technologies Programme, which began in 2014 as the first of its kind in the world. The new 10-year, £2.5bn programme aims to make the country a home to world-leading quantum science and engineering by supporting business and driving the adoption of quantum technologies.

The programme includes £100m for research hubs in quantum computing, communications, sensing, imaging and timing; an extra £70m for quantum computing and navigation; £25m for quantum fellowships and PhD training; £15m for government procurement of quantum tech; £20m for start-ups; an extra £20m for the National Quantum Computing Centre.

Targets include:

  • Keeping the UK third in the world in terms of the quality and impact of its quantum science by 2033, while increasing the number of research publications.
  • Making the UK the “go-to place” for quantum businesses, an integral part of the global supply chain and a preferred location for investors and talent.
  • Achieving a 15% share of global private-equity investment in quantum firms by 2033 (up from 12%) and 15% market share in quantum tech (up from 9%).
  • Ensuring 25%–33% of businesses have taken “concrete steps” to prepare for the arrival of quantum computing, with 75% of relevant businesses having already done so.

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