June 16, 2023 | Policy Brief

Congress Should Protect U.S. Leadership in Quantum Research

June 16, 2023 | Policy Brief

Congress Should Protect U.S. Leadership in Quantum Research

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology heard from administration officials and academic experts last week on the importance of reauthorizing the National Quantum Initiative (NQI) Act to help solidify America’s role as a leader in quantum technology. With China rapidly expanding its research into quantum computing, which can crack common encryption measures, the reauthorization and expansion of this act can help preserve America’s scientific edge.

President Donald Trump signed the NQI Act into law in 2018 to “accelerate research and development [of quantum technology] for the economic and national security of the United States.” With strong bipartisan support, the bill authorized the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct research and development (R&D) on quantum science and technology and established coordinating bodies for quantum R&D within the federal government.

Because of the NQI Act, federal quantum R&D spending roughly doubled between Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 and FY 2022, totaling $900 million annually. With this funding, the government created Quantum Information Science Research Centers and the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, an institution that brings together industry, academic, and government stakeholders to tackle issues in quantum technology. The funding, however, is set to expire on September 30 without congressional reauthorization.

Charles Tahan, director of the National Quantum Coordination Office within the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, emphasized the need to reauthorize and expand the NQI Act. He noted that, through the NQI, the United States is positioning itself to take advantage of the revolutionary computational power of quantum computers to drive innovation in biomedical applications, drug discovery, and other scientific fields.

However, quantum computing also poses an existential threat to today’s cybersecurity. An advanced quantum computer could break through the current encryption measures used by both government and the private sector for securing data. An advanced quantum computer could break codes in a matter of hours, whereas classical computers would require multiple lifetimes to defeat the same encryption. If an adversary were to create a quantum computer of sufficient power before the United States can create post-quantum encryption methods, the nation’s most sensitive information would be at risk. For this reason, the U.S. government’s quantum R&D also focuses on developing new, stronger encryption.

Without a reauthorization of the NQI Act, the United States risks falling behind. As the committee itself outlined, China made clear back in 2016 its intention to overtake the United States in this field by 2030. Beijing announced two years ago that it would invest $15.3 billion into quantum R&D, double that of all other governments combined. Chinese R&D has reportedly moved to the early application stage, with Chinese researchers claiming they have already made great strides in cracking RSA encryption, the current global standard. While none of these claims have been peer-reviewed or verified, Chinese intent to quickly produce quantum technologies for hostile applications remains alarming.

The NQI Act has clearly demonstrated its ability to promote quantum R&D. In addition to the fundamental quantum research on which the act has focused, the United States should also be investing in early-stage quantum applications, the quantum field in which China has excelled the most. There is also a need to attract new domestic talent to work in quantum R&D, which can be achieved through new grants and fellowships. Programs to fund education or training in quantum-related subjects also have the benefit of expanding the workforce and driving innovation in the long run.

Michael Sugden is a research analyst and editorial associate with the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from the author and CCTI, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CCTI. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.