The European Commission has quietly announced plans to launch a €1-billion (US$1.13 billion) project to boost a raft of quantum technologies — from secure communication networks to ultra-precise gravity sensors and clocks.
The initiative, to launch in 2018, will be similar in size, timescale and ambition to two existing European flagships, the decade-long Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project, although the exact format has yet to be decided, Nathalie Vandystadt, a commission spokesperson, told Nature. Funding will come from a mixture of sources, including the commission, as well as other European and national funders, she added.
The commission is likely to have a “substantial role” in funding the flagship, says Tommaso Calarco, who leads the Integrated Quantum Science and Technology centre at the Universities of Ulm and Stuttgart in Germany. He co-authored a blueprint behind the initiative, which was published in March, called the Quantum Manifesto. Countries around the world are investing in these technologies, says Calarco. Without such an initiative, Europe risks becoming a second-tier player, he says. “The time is really now or never.”
On 19 April, the commission formally announced its intention to support the initiative. Confusingly, the project is included under plans to launch a cloud-computing portal called the European Open Science Cloud, even though the remit of the quantum project will extend far beyond computing. (In the same announcement, the commission said it would spend €2 billion on the cloud-computing initiative by 2020).
High-profile US companies are already investing in quantum computing, and Chinese scientists are nearing the completion of a 2,000-kilometre long quantum-communication link — the longest in the world — to send information securely between Beijing and Shanghai.
In Europe, the flagship is expected to fuel the development of such technologies, which the commission calls part of a “second quantum revolution” (the first being the unearthing of the rules of the quantum realm, which led to the invention of equipment such as lasers and transistors).
The initiative will include support for relatively near-to-market systems, such as quantum-communication networks, ultra-sensitive cameras, and quantum simulators that could help to design new materials. It will also look to the longer term, pushing more-futuristic visions such as all-purpose quantum computers and high-precision sensors that fit into mobile phones.
Success will be judged by how well the flagship succeeds in boosting industry take up of the technologies and in seeding investment in the field, says Calarco. “If this doesn’t happen, it will be a failure. But everyone is very confident it will,” he says.
Quantum-technology projects already exist in several individual European Union countries, such as the UK Quantum Technologies Programme and the Netherlands’ QuTech initiative, notes Marco Genovese, a quantum physicist at the Italian National Institute of Metrological Research in Turin. But to reach commercial level in the near future, an EU-wide initiative is essential, he says. “At the moment, EU industry is still only marginally involved,” he says.
Europe’s graphene and brain-project flagships were announced with great fanfare in 2013 after a multiyear competition, but the latest initiative has had a much quieter birth. Calarco says that it was driven by an 18-month dialogue between the commission and a group of researchers who, at the organization’s request, produced the manifesto.
Not everyone is pleased with the commission’s new approach. Hans Lehrach, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, points out that a narrower but similar proposal surrounding quantum-based information technology, called ICT Beyond Limits, was considered but did not make the shortlist for the 2013 flagship competition.
“I find it very surprising that a project which had already been eliminated in the first round in the last flagship competition is simply announced as a new flagship project, without any form of competition of different ideas and concepts against each other,” he says. Unsuccessful shortlisted proposals from the 2013 competition — such as his own, which was designed to use data and information technology to improve healthcare — also deserved consideration this time around, he argues.
Choosing flagships on the basis of bilateral discussions and manifestos risks turning them into “a competition of lobbying, rather than of arguments evaluated objectively in a fair competition of scientific ideas”, adds Adrian Ionescu, a nanoscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. He led another shortlisted proposal, the Guardian Angels for a Smarter Life project, which would develop sensors to track environmental pollution and human health.
The commission says that it is still running a separate consultation to identify candidates for future flagship projects, and that the quantum initiative does not prevent other flagships being launched. Funds for the first phase of the quantum initiative in 2018, it added, would be granted to proposals evaluated by panels of independent experts.
Genovese warns that the new project must be careful to avoid the problems faced by existing giant flagships, which included accusations of mismanagement and veering off course. “The building of the flagship must involve all the main research groups that have really significantly worked in the field through a bottom-up approach, and the concentration of power should be avoided,” he says.
The commission is set to announce more details on the initiative at the Quantum Europe Conference in Amsterdam on 17–18 May, at which the manifesto will also be officially launched.
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