As China and the United States threaten to corner the market on quantum technologies, Europe is slowly waking up to the opportunity with investment of its own. A year ago, the European Commission announced that it would create a €1-billion (US$1.1-billion) research effort in the field, and it should start to invite grant applications later this year. But scientists coordinating the project say that they are already concerned because industry partners seem reluctant to invest.
Members of an advisory group steering the Quantum Technology Flagship, as the project is called, gave details of how it will work at a meeting on 7 April at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in London. The project aims to exploit the bizarre behaviour shown by quantum systems to develop new technologies, such as super-secure communication systems and miniature, ultra-accurate sensors.
But the programme is playing catch-up. Many labs in rival regions are already developing quantum technologies, including at large firms such as Google and Microsoft.
“Europe cannot afford to miss this train,” says Vladimir Buzek, a member of the advisory group and a physicist at the Research Center for Quantum Information of the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava. “The industry here, to my taste, is really waiting too long,” he said at the meeting.
Launched in April 2016 as part of an apparently unrelated initiative in cloud-computing, the quantum project is the European Commission’s latest decade-long, billion-euro initiative. Yet, the two previous EU mega-projects — the Graphene Flagship and the Human Brain Project, both announced in 2013 — have yet to fully prove their value. The latter has been plagued by disputes over its leadership. And both have had difficulty drumming up complementary investment from member states, says Tommaso Calarco, a physicist at the Centre for Integrated Quantum Science and Technology at the Universities of Ulm and Stuttgart in Germany, and another adviser on the steering committeee.
The Quantum Technology Flagship will work differently, he says. Rather than run largely as a closed consortium selected at the project’s outset, it will operate with open calls throughout. He says that this should ensure high levels of competition, and offer the flexibility to fund the best researchers throughout. And he hopes that it will encourage member states to invest nationally to make stronger bids for funding.