Brexit and the Quantum Landscape

The arrival of Boris Johnson in Downing Street makes a hard Brexit ending more likely. To understand the impact this will have on the science and innovation landscape and quantum technology in particular, we have to look beyond the immediate disruptions and understand how the thinking of the political right has changed.

UK science is a strong participant on the international stage. It has in particular benefitted from participation in the EU framework programmes for research and innovation that have been a growing part of EU policy and spending since the 1980s. UK science has been a net beneficiary both in terms of research funding and also via the free movement of scientists across the EU.

UK groups continue to participate in the EU Quantum Flagship. However the absence of the UK from key leadership and steering roles, announced earlier this year, was already an early consequence of the Brexit direction of travel.

Fact Based Insight believes that to see the longer term consequences of Brexit on the quantum technology landscape we also have to consider the wider context of competing national programmes and the renaissance of industrial policy on the political right.

Don’t pick winners

Government investment in building-up the industries of the future and so securing good jobs for their citizens looks like an obvious policy. Picking winners sounds like a good idea. However things have often not worked out in practice.

UK post-war history is a case study in the perils and pitfalls of traditional industrial policy. On his way to becoming Prime Minster in 1964, Harold Wilson promised a new Britian “forged in the white heat” of the technological revolution. Experience fell short.

  • TSR-2, a high tech strike aircraft cancelled amid changing political priorities;
  • Concorde, the world’s first supersonic airliner but a commercial failure;
  • Advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactors, a great design but plagued by overruns in construction;
  • British Leyland, a ‘national champion’ for car manufacture, but one that became a by-word for politicians trapped into bailing-out industrial failure.

Ronald Reagan and Margaret ThatcherMargaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US forged a new response to the challenges their economies faced. Their neoliberal solution was to radically reduce the role of the state in economic decision making. Privatisation and de-regulation followed across a slew of sectors. Trying to ‘pick winners’  was viewed as doomed to failure, instead market forces would  ensure the survival of the fittest. For two decades this became the dominant political wisdom across many liberal democracies.

Pick missions instead

Following the global financial crisis of 2008-09 many started to question whether an untrammeled belief in markets had gone too far. The rise of new global powers with quite different economic outlooks also challenged the western consensus. China has no problem identifying its economic rise with an active industrial strategy.  Despite the strength of basic science in the west, a ‘valley of death’ often faced innovators wanting to bring new technology to market.

Proponents of new thinking started off on a revisionist note, pointing out that industrial policy never really went away even in the Anglosphere.  In the US, DARPA is widely seen as a highly successful model of bridging science into applications, not least ARAPNET the forerunner of the modern Internet. In the UK, despite the strictures of Thatcherism, government support for the growth of London as a Financial Centre can also be seen as an unspoken industrial strategy.

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths –  In her 2013 book Marian Mazzucato point to the public funding roots that created many key technologies from GPS to touch screens and voice recognition. Many see the state funds channelled via DARPA as being key to the establishment of Silicon Valley as a world hub for semiconductor development. Mazzucato now heads the UCL IIPP.

Several governments have now developed or are developing a framework for industrial policy that seeks to avoid traditional pitfalls:

  • To avoid capture by specific industry or technology interests, policy is targeted on ‘grand challenges’ the solution of which have wider economic and societal benefits.
  • To drive progress on these challenges, ‘missions’ are assigned which can mobilise action and provide a bridge to sustaining popular support.

The archetype for this approach is the role of the Apollo moon landings (the mission) in driving US success in the Space race (the challenge).  NASA has never been slow to boast of the commercial benefits that spawned from the programme.

Prime Minister David Cameron was the first to move the UK Conservative party back towards an active industrial policy. Later, this area was enthusiastically picked up by his successor Theresa May. Hemmed in on Brexit, she will point to the launch of the new UK Industrial Strategy in 2017 as one of her main legacies.

The UK Industrial Strategy focusses on four ‘grand challenges’: future of mobility, AI & the data economy, clean growth and ageing society. In 2019 the government has launched five initial ‘missions’ to drive progress on the challenges. These range from using AI to transform the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of chronic diseases by 2030, to halving the energy use of new buildings by 2030.

Quantum challenge and opportunity

Given its high profile backing from a series of Big Tech players, some might question whether the quantum technology sector really does need continuing state support. However the reality is that a long road remains to realising its potential.

Fact Based Insight remains impressed by the progress of the many teams working in the sector. However we have to be realistic about the timeline being realised.

The 2019 Quantum Outlook is only on track at best. Google may soon achieve quantum supremacy, but the demonstration proposed is modest, and increasingly delayed from the original aspiration. The beautiful IBM Q System One has turned heads, but in common with other superconducting qubit based designs, there is still no proven way to scale-up this approach. Benchmark results from startups such as IonQ  and SQC are commendable, but they also show the difficulties developers are having in maintaining qubit fidelities as devices scale-up. We don’t have a real photonic device from PsiQ or Xanadu yet, nor a single working topological qubit from Microsoft.

A growing number of quantum cryptography vendors offer unique and complementary capabilities of traditional maths-based cryptographic approaches, but deployment typically faces the obstacle of requiring new hardware, new standards and new security thinking.

Quantum sensing and imaging initiatives face competition from incumbent solutions that benefit from existing economics of scale and cost optimised manufacture.

The wider sector has many interconnected threads and is set to be underpinned by a raft of enabling capabilities in nanofabrication, photonics, and computational science. Becoming the future go-to location for the skills and infrastructure needed to realise these opportunities is a golden prize for any economy. Quantum technology by itself however is not a societal mission. The question is whether it can play a leading role in the pursuit of a goal the wider population understands and supports.

Quantum arms race

China’s leaders began to recognise the importance of quantum technology from 2013, reputedly in the aftermath of the leaks of US classified documents by Edward Snowden. Initial research successes, particularly in quantum cryptography, have led to growing confidence and widening scope for their quantum programme. In 2016 the thirteenth five-year plan made quantum technology a priority. China has already built the first stretches of what it sees as the forerunner to the future Quantum Internet and identified quantum computing as a priority within ‘Made in China 2025’, its plan to make China a scientific superpower and move the Chinese economy to higher value activities.

Quantum technology in the UK has taken a parallel track to the rebirth of its overall industrial strategy. It was David Cameron’s chancellor, George Osbourne that launched the UKNQT Programme, with funding ultimately totalling £385m for 2014-18. The closing days of Theresa May’s government has seen  funding for 2019-2024 expanded to include £153m of ISCF support (in addition to a £20m pioneer wave of projects in 2018) plus £205m of matched industry funding, £94m of continued support for the four research hubs and £75m for a new national quantum computing centre. All-in-all a ‘£1b’ programme over 10 years. Despite the impressive scale of this programme, there isn’t yet a ‘mission’ that fully leverages quantum technology within the overall UK Industrial Strategy.

Now in its first year, the EU has launched a 10-year €1b Quantum Flagship. Strong national programmes also exist in the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. The EU is also adopting a mission oriented approach for Horizon Europe, its next research and innovation framework programme for 2021-27. The Quantum Flagship will continue through this period, though it is not aligned with a single specific mission it can potentially play an enabling role in several.

POTUS signs NQI ActThe US has long held a strong position in basic quantum science research, however it was slower than other players such as Australia, China, Canada, the UK and the EU to organise a formal national quantum technology programme. With bipartisan support, the NQI act was signed by President Trump at the end of 2018. A number of National Quantum Information Science Research Centers and  Multidisciplinary Centers for Quantum Research and Education will be created. NIST will also support the initiative. For 2019-23, the envisaged spend is $1.2b.

Despite the success of the quantum photonics sector in the UK, startup PsiQ has recently formalised its move to the US. It is rumoured to be raising £130m funding and the lure of Silicon Valley has proved too much.

Despite the growing pace and rivalry of these national programmes, it is notable that perhaps only the Chinese programme that is close to aligning quantum with a true ‘mission’ able to capture the public imagination.

The Dream of Quantum

Despite its often controversial and divisive stance, the Trump Whitehouse is a natural friend to industrial policy. In the 2019 State of the Union Address the President emphasised the need for “investments in the cutting edge industries of the future”, adding “This is not an option. This is a necessity”. The Whitehouse has singled out the president’s support for AI, Advanced Manufacturing, Quantum Information Science and 5G as priority technologies; and is currently running a public consultation on its national quantum computing policy.

Boris JohnsonIt is perhaps less clear why there should be any doubt about the incoming Boris Johnson’s support for the UK Industrial Strategy.  But some voices of concern have been raised, notably Jürgen Maier of Siemens UK quoted in the Financial Times saying “the government is as split on this being the right thing to do as it is on Brexit”.  One key grouping of Conservative MPs that backed Johnson for the leadership are the European Research Group (ERG). While the focus of this group is specifically the UK’s exit from the EU, many of its members are also associated with strict adherence to Thatcherite free market ideology. Some might also worry about whether a prime minister who read Classics at Oxford would have sufficient empathy for science.

However Fact Based Insight believes that these fears are misplaced. Many point to Johnson’s book ‘The Churchill Factor’ for insight into his likely approach. Incongruously his earlier book ‘The Dream of Rome’ may be equally relevant. In it Johnson charts the uncanny parallels faced by politicians in the ancient world to the populist challenges inherent in today’s nation states. As he enters Downing Street Johnson’s critics complain that he is too attracted to shiny high profile projects. His response would likely be that he understands the role that such projects play in sustaining popular support for needed policies. Technological advantage mattered very much to the Romans and they used it intelligently. One of Johnson’s first appointments has been Dominic Cummings as his chief adviser. To many Cummings is a controversial figure, but his focus on the role (and structure) of scientific funding in driving economic advantage is a striking feature of this writings.

In developing new trade arrangements between the US and the UK there is a parallel opportunity for enhanced collaboration in quantum technology. Trump has made Huawei a totem of his drive to contain the growing influence of China.  Other members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance such as Australia and Canada also have notably strong quantum programmes. Might this set the ground for a high profile collaborative mission?

UK based academics will loath the disruptions to their relationships across Europe and worry about whether money spent on ‘bread and circuses’ in the Roman manner will curtail the room for spending on research. On the other hand, reassurances to current EU nationals working in the UK and the promise of a points-based immigration scheme aimed at “the brightest and the best” look preferable to more extreme populist alternatives.  Academics would be foolish to repeat the mistake made when they alienated the incoming Margaret Thatcher. On that occasion too, many assumed that the new Prime Minister wouldn’t last long.

Actions for Business

Businesses will certainly not welcome the ongoing Brexit disruption, but it should look for indicators to the road ahead:

  • Brexit aside, will the UK Conservative party continue with its return to industrial strategy and enhanced science & research funding?
  • Will the wider confrontation between China and the US further affect patterns of quantum collaboration and partnering?
  • Are there signs of greater co-operation emerging across the strong quantum programmes of the Anglosphere, including Australia, Canada, the UK and US.
  • Will a post-Brexit UK negotiate continued involvement in the EU’s Horizon Europe programme?
  • Is a potential ‘mission’ emerging within a wider national programme where quantum technology could make the crucial difference?
David Shaw

About the Author

David Shaw has worked extensively in consulting, market analysis & advisory businesses across a wide range of sectors including Technology, Healthcare, Energy and Financial Services. He has held a number of senior executive roles in public and private companies. David studied Physics at Balliol College, Oxford and has a PhD in Particle Physics from UCL. He is a member of the Institute of Physics. Follow David on Twitter and LinkedIn


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  3. David Shaw
    David Shaw -

    Speaking at EMQT 2019 and IQTeurope 2019, Tommaso Calarco (chair of EU Quantum Community Network) has repeated called for the EU quantum community to make its voice heard now to prevent Quantum Flagship funding being damaged in post Brexit wrangling over the next EU budget (2021-27).

  4. David Shaw
    David Shaw -

    The manifestos of the main UK political parties for the 12 Dec election make an interesting contrast in how often they use the word ‘science’ :
    Labour – 2 times in 107 pages
    Liberal Democrats – 2 times in 100 pages
    Conservative – 21 times in 64 pages (…up from 7 times in 88 pages in 2017)

    Boris Johnson’s Conservative party remain committed to Brexit and are currently leading in the polls. However their manifesto makes it clear that they want to remain part of the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme (this is the programme that supports the EU’s Quantum Flagship). Post-Brexit they list a series of mission-like challenges: ‘clean energy and advanced energy storage; a cure for dementia; and solving antibiotic resistance’. These are all areas where UKNQT enthusiasts are already arguing that quantum technology can help. The manifesto outlines plans for ‘a new agency for high-risk high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government’. Sounds a lot like the original DARPA concept. Looks like ‘Industrial Policy’ is morphing into ‘Science & Innovation Policy’.

  5. David Shaw
    David Shaw -

    Dominic Cummings confirmed the inspiration for the ‘high-risk high-payoff’ research agency in a blog post today. Cummings refers to ARPA the original name for DARPA (he sees the early period as being it’s best). In a piece that is dominated by a conventional reinforcement of the Conservative election pitch, it’s interesting that he picks out this one part of the wider manifesto for comment. It’s also notable that he quotes David Deutsch (referencing his seminal contribution on universal quantum computers in passing) and that he includes Scott Aaronson on his recommended blogroll.

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