The federal government is leaning on quantum technology to help restore and drive long-term economic growth, with Budget 2021 committing $360 million over seven years, starting in 2021-22, to the launch of a national quantum strategy.
A national strategy will position Canada among a select group of nations, including the United Kingdom and United States, that are placing big bets on this potentially disruptive technology.
Canadian quantum researchers and entrepreneurs told Research Money that the sector is ready, waiting and poised to deliver. However, realizing a national quantum strategy will require a sustained commitment, enhanced coordination between academia, industry and government, and a commitment to addressing the societal, ethical, legal and policy implications of the quantum revolution.
“We have the essential building blocks to be global leaders not just in the science, but also in the commercialization of quantum technologies" and in benefitting from the quantum advantage those technologies can deliver, said Michele Mosca, Co-chair of Quantum Industry Canada and CEO of evolutionQ Inc., a quantum-safe cybersecurity company based in Kitchener, Ont.
But a coherent strategy is urgently needed to translate those building blocks into economic prosperity and security for all Canadians, Mosca told Research Money.
"Quantum is at a place where there's a clear spectrum from fundamental basic science through to commercial application," said Mark Daley, Vice-President of Research at CIFAR. "The benefit of the strategy is bringing all those players together and optimizing how we do things because that's how we're going to compete." The Toronto-based global research organization has been funding quantum research since 1987 and has been part of the discussions around the development of a national quantum strategy.
Budget 2021's investment builds on the Government of Canada’s estimated $1-billion in spending on quantum research over the past decade, including the establishment of three quantum research centres of excellence at the University of British Columbia, the University of Waterloo and Université de Sherbrooke.
Andrea Damascelli, Scientific Director of the Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute at the University of British Columbia, said translating quantum science into technology requires long-term dedicated funding. “It is very hard to do work that has a translational significance without that," he said.
“[The new funding] is the realization of that dream of having something that you can count on and really use in a very strategic way — not just for a few selected centres but for the community as a whole,” he added.
Florian Martin-Bariteau, an associate professor at the Common Law Section and University Research Chair in Technology and Society at the University of Ottawa, shares Mosca's view that a coherent strategy is an urgent priority. “Canada is late in the game with the strategy," he said in an interview. "We're a global leader in research, but we need the strategy now to stay ahead of the game.”
Quantum Canada consultations culminated in a 200-page proposal that is not yet public
Recognizing that quantum science is poised to deliver real commercial value, Canada’s quantum leaders have been working toward a national quantum strategy since 2015.
An economic analysis conducted by the NRC projected that by 2030, Canada's domestic quantum industry will be worth an estimated $8.2 billion, employ 16,000 people and generate $3.5 billion in returns for the government. By 2040, it could become a $142.4 billion industry, creating 229,000 jobs and generating $55 billion in government returns.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, CIFAR and the National Research Council have supported a series of “Quantum Canada” consultations, symposia and workshops aimed at coordinating across the quantum ecosystem, including strengthening linkages between academia, government and the private sector.
In the past two years, those efforts have intensified, culminating in a set of recommendations to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) that outline what a national quantum strategy could look like.
The details aren’t public, but Damascelli at the University of British Columbia said the 200-page proposal aims to connect Canada’s strengths in quantum science and in the private sector to deliver real economic impact.
Some of the funding in Budget 2021 will establish a quantum secretariat at ISED, which is expected to provide further details on the rollout of the strategy in the coming months.
Damascelli is chairing a national conference in January 2022, which he said will “keep the conversation going, especially around bridging the gap between academia and industry.”
In addition to bringing academia and industry together, he said the strategy must support workforce development, ensuring that Canada not only trains but also retains its quantum talent, and guides the launch of new scientific and technical programs. “What do we want to do, where can we have an impact, and what strengths do we have in Canada to build on?” he said.
Mosca at Quantum Industry Canada said the recommendations he saw in the yet-unreleased proposal are thoughtful, but cautioned that execution of the strategy will be critical. He said support for quantum research is an essential piece, but “the harder part, where others around the world have already started a concerted effort, is nurturing the broader ecosystem."
“What I hope my colleagues at ISED and the secretariat are looking at is this idea of the value of a coupled, integrated strategy, rather than a whole lot of ad hoc funding programs,” said Mosca.
“Is the driving mandate a coherent strategy to bring economic prosperity and security to Canadians in the context of quantum technology?" he asked. "Or is the driving element to fund specific projects, more R&D, without a clear strategy or path to useful adoption and commercial success of the Canadian quantum sector? It's not clear yet.”
CIFAR report highlights four measures for supporting quantum R&D
In April, CIFAR released “A Quantum Revolution: Report on Global Policies for Quantum Technology,” which provides an overview of the policy measures different countries have used to support quantum R&D. It grew out of CIFAR's engagement with the quantum community.
“A theme that kept emerging was how to position a potential Canadian strategy in the global landscape,” said Daley at CIFAR, who called the report “a contextualizing document.”
It summarizes four broad measures for supporting quantum R&D and their use among national quantum policies: 1) centres of excellence, applied R&D centres, innovation hubs; 2) targeting calls for proposal and competitions; 3) direct funding for special projects; and 4) government investment or venture capital for startups.
“When you look at who's doing really well [in quantum], it is countries that have an integrated strategy and hit all four of those boxes,” said Daley.
Success will require long-term investment: researchers
Sustained investment will be essential for the strategy to succeed, Damascelli said.
“If you want quantum science and technology to change the world, the key becomes the sustainability of an effort. That is resources and people,” he said.
“It's hard to imagine that the Internet and the other technologies we have today would have come from the discovery of semiconductor transistors without 50 years of investments in that area. You're seeing a similar situation with quantum technology but at an earlier stage,” he added.
For the strategy to succeed, Martin-Bariteau agreed that it needs to support research excellence and Canada’s emerging quantum industry, and invest in building a quantum-ready workforce. But he said Canada should also make the societal, ethical, legal and policy implications of the quantum revolution a core part of the national quantum strategy — and invest in that part accordingly.
“No other countries have made this one of their missions. And yet, Canada is known for its leadership in the responsible development and deployment of technology. We could take the lead in that global conversation,” he said.