The European Commission has picked a third research area where it hopes to have a major impact by spending a massive amount of cash. Research groups across the continent will receive up to €1 billion over the next 10 years to develop quantum technologies, which might be used to develop anything from faster computers and very secure communication systems to ultrasensitive sensors and more precise atomic clocks.
The project "should place Europe at the forefront of the second quantum revolution, bringing transformative advances to science, industry and society within the decade to come," a spokesperson for the European Commission wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. “This is an exciting and ambitious effort to focus the extraordinary scientific accomplishments from Europe to develop fundamentally new technologies based on the quantum state of matter,” says David Awschalom, a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who is not involved in the project.
Two similarly ambitious schemes showering money on a single topic, called Flagship projects, have been underway in the European Union since 2014. One focuses on the study of graphene, the other on a computer model of the entire human brain. They were selected after an exhaustive high-profile beauty contest and announced with a series of media events. This time, there was no formal competition, and the project’s announcement was hidden in a short sentence in a long document this week describing plans to “digitize European industry.”
The researchers leading the new project had tried to win a Flagship award during the first round, but didn't even end up among the six finalists. “This proposal is much better thought through and discussed within the community than the previous one,” says one of its leaders, Ignacio Cirac of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany. The time wasn't quite ripe when the team tried last time, says Tommaso Calarco, a quantum physicist at the University of Ulm in Germany, another scientist behind the project. It was before Edward Snowden made his bombshell revelations about U.S. eavesdropping programs, and before companies like Microsoft and Google announced major investments in quantum technologies.
At the commission's request, Cirac, Calarco, and a few other scientists and industry experts wrote a Quantum Manifesto earlier this year making the case for a major European investment and laying out what they would do with the money. The manifesto has been signed by more than 3000 people already, and the commission has accepted the proposal. A formal announcement will be made in May at a meeting in Amsterdam.
Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, says the team has learned from the existing two Flagships—especially the Human Brain Project (HBP), which was heavily criticized for making unrealistic claims and an autocratic management style. (The HBP was drastically reformed after hundreds of neuroscientists threatened to boycott the project.) The manifesto's authors were careful not to overpromise, Zeilinger says. Calarco adds that the low-key announcement was done on purpose: “We did not want to start off like [the HBP] did.” The Quantum Manifesto does not even mention the authors’ names; “This is not about pushing an individual or an institution into the limelight. This is about a research community,” Calarco says.
The HBP's specific problems aside, the concept of E.U. Flagships has been criticized by some as inefficient, whereas others said there was too little scrutiny for the money involved. On top of that, spending so much money on a single research topic is a gamble. But “the translation from science to technology needs this scale of coordination and funding in order to be competitive and have technological impact,” Awschalom says.
Zeilinger agrees. “With the Americans investing hundreds of millions of dollars in this area, we will not be able to keep up with a few grants” from the European Research Council, he says. European researchers are doing top-notch basic research, Zeilinger says, but the extra money is needed to make sure they also play a role in applying it. "Otherwise Europe will once again generate ideas and others will generate products out of them.”