IOP President-Elect champions quantum technologies to committee of MPs

8 June 2018

Quantum science is a “uniquely broad endeavour” with potentially huge implications for products and markets, our President-Elect Jonathan Flint told a parliamentary select committee investigating quantum technologies on 5 June.

IOP President-Elect champions quantum technologies to committee of MPs

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on behalf of IOP, he said: “I think the quantum programme is one of the best, and certainly the most productive, that I have been involved with. Quantum science touches a number of existing technologies and markets. It’s not just one thing – we’re not inventing a new widget – we’re inventing a new way of using science to make products and make wealth and that’s unique to quantum.

“It will be an underpinning technology. Today it’s a foundation for a next-generation industry across a broad range of possible applications.”

Though quantum computing was “rightly the poster child for quantum technologies at the moment”, it was important to take note of other quantum applications, he said. He is on the advisory board of QuantIC, which is involved with a camera that can see round corners. “It’s quite profound and counter-intuitive. The quantum world is riddled with those sorts of applications that could come out of the highly counter-intuitive nature of quantum mechanics.”

When SNP MP Carol Monaghan asked if there was sufficient motivation for academics to commercialise their research, he said that as a non-executive director of Oxford University Innovation he had found “we have a long stream of academics looking to commercialise their ideas” and he did not see them as people living in ivory towers. “If you’re looking for industrial sponsors they will look for patents and that provides an added incentive for academics to get those in place early.

“Quantum products will be cheap to manufacture once they’re finalised. The wealth generation will be in the design and that requires the intellectual property (IP). We need to maintain in this country the intellectual powerhouse that will generate that IP so that we can keep control of this technology as it spreads – we should not just be a manufacturer of cheap widgets for someone else’s IP.”

Conservative MP Vicky Ford asked whether there would be new opportunities for collaboration in quantum science and technology beyond the EU in future years. With other witnesses, including IOP fellows Professor Sir Michael Pepper and Professor John Moreton, he agreed that existing rather than new opportunities for collaboration with non-EU countries would still be available, but added: “They are nothing like an effective replacement for our long and intimate relationship with the EU.”

Labour MP Liz Kendall asked what was being done to increase diversity in science, particularly in quantum. Mentioning IOP’s work in increasing diversity in the physics community and encouraging more girls to take up physics A-level in particular, he said that although the numbers were getting slightly better, there was more to be done. “I don’t think it’s really appropriate to have a separate mechanism for quantum, but we need to encourage more young women particularly to take up careers in STEM disciplines,” he said. He also mentioned that our Council now has more female than male members for the first time.

In the preceding session, the committee focused on the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, looking at how the first phase had gone and at plans for the second. It heard evidence from our former President, Professor Sir Peter Knight, and from IOP fellow Professor David Delpy, a former Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council who now chairs the programme’s strategic advisory board.

The Government spent £270m on the first phase of the programme, which had increased to £400m with funding from other partners, the committee heard. Professor Delpy said the strategic advisory board had put in a bid for £338m for the next phase and it was “absolutely essential that a commitment is made by autumn” on the future funding. If not, the field could lose everything that had been achieved by the academic groups and industries who had built their work on the existing programme, he said.

Professor Knight, who is Interim Challenge Director for the Industrial Strategy Challenge in Quantum Technology, said some of the brightest people in early career could see that quantum technology could help them to advance their science and could have an impact on everyday life. “We are being overwhelmed by people who want to be involved in this adventure.” he said.