The government has commissioned an urgent report to guide Australia’s National Quantum Strategy, but recognizes it will be stymied if it cannot succeed with its plans to diversify the STEM workforce.
The 15-person committee, chaired by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley AO, will be an integral part of the push to coordinate Australia’s quantum capability across research, industry and government.
Industry and Science Minister Ed Husich wants the strategy by the end of the year.
CSIRO conservatively estimates quantum technology in Australia could be a $4 billion industry in computing, communications and sensing, creating 16,000 jobs by 2040.
Australia’s focus on quantum computing began in earnest in 2000 with Australian Research Council funding for the Center for Quantum Computing and Communications Technology Australian Center of Excellence (CQC2T) from 2003-2010 and has been returning ever since.
The Australian Research Council currently supports four national Centers of Excellence—the Centers for Engineering Quantum Science (EQUS), Exciton Science, Future Technologies of Low Energy Electronics (FLEET), and Quantum Computing and Communications Technology (CQC2T)—employs more than 500 scientists and operates differently through 2023 and 2024.
A research program in a fifth Center, the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy (OzGrav) uses gravitational wave astronomy and Defense has created a next-generation technology fund with quantum technologies as one of its seven priority areas.
A 2019 research paper in Quantum Science and Technology says more than two decades of support for quantum engineering, science and technology has paved the way for important scientific results and exciting translational efforts in Australia.
“CQC2T has demonstrated clear international leadership in quantum computing and quantum communications research,” the authors concluded in their paper, adding that it had achieved several world-leading research results, including:
- the higher-fidelity, longer-coherence-time solid-state qubits
- manufactured devices of one person
- was visually addressed to a single person
- created the world’s longest-lasting quantum memory
Minister Husic said: “We cannot afford to let this competitive advantage slip away.
“The $1 billion critical technologies fund, part of the National Reconstruction Fund, will also be available to support quantum industries.
“We need to ensure we embed quantum capability and value here in Australia. As a minister, it’s not my job to say what can’t be done, but to promote the ambition of what we can achieve together in quantum technology.”
Science and Technology Australia’s chief executive welcomed the new initiative, particularly the mix of academics and industry on the panel.
Misha Schubert says Australia is on the cusp of the next era of large-scale, rapid technological progress.
“Australia is at the forefront of Quantum Technology globally.
“The review panel will bring together the best minds in quantum science and research and Australia’s leading figures in quantum commercialization.”
Late last year, under the Morrison government, $111 million was committed to start the project being considered by the committee.
Schubert described the committee as “a strong national strategy committee that will think deeply about what further strategic investments are needed”.
The workforce of the future
Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley says Australia has become a world leader in quantum expertise and must now seize the opportunity to do the same in other STEM industries.
Dr. Foley will chair the National Quantum Advisory Committee and is also leading the development of a national quantum strategy this year. “Australia’s quantum story is actually a great success story,” Dr Foley says.
“The quantum experience holds important lessons for other STEM-dependent sectors considered critical to Australia’s future – space, cyber, biotechnology, clean energy and semiconductors.
“More than 20 years ago, significant investment was made in research ‘Centres of Excellence’, which meant Australia built a rich quantum research and talent base and is now home to some of the world’s leading quantum start-ups and companies.
“Now that we’re in the technology development phase, we urgently need to continue upskilling our workforce, while also investing in other research to create that culture of innovation and discovery.”
“By funding basic research, Australia maintains its research strength in the country. This makes Australia a stronger, more attractive country for the world’s top research talent.
“Raising STEM participation from school to university is a critical part of the equation.”
The latest STEM Equity Monitor demonstrates the ongoing problems with attracting a diverse, local workforce.
The recent increase in student numbers is almost entirely due to international students.
The document from the Office of the Chief Scientist compares numbers of graduates in Physical and Natural Sciences, Information Technology or Engineering – a skill pool essential to the development of many critical industries.
About one in five Australian undergraduate degrees are in the physical and natural sciences, information technology or engineering disciplines.
The number of domestic graduates has either stagnated (Natural Sciences) or decreased (Engineering) since 2017. Only IT has seen an increase, but the numbers are still far outnumbering international graduates.
Dr Foley says attracting and retaining international talent remains central, but: “We are not graduating enough domestic students with relevant skills.
“Tech industries also need skills from the humanities and social sciences, to ensure the regulatory and ethical frameworks are in place and to have the input of design and creativity from the arts.
“It is important that we continue to support a globally connected research sector that welcomes people with talent and ideas.
“At the same time, we need to build domestic capacity so that we can realize the transformative potential of new technologies in our economy and society.”
Misha Schubert points to non-traditional areas of the population that need to be encouraged in the STEM workforce: women, First Nations people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and people living in our regions.
“Potential workers need to understand that these are going to be powerful jobs of the future. STEM skills are the ultimate problem-solving skill set, especially if you want a career that will change the world.”
The STEM Equity Monitor, launched in 2020 as part of the Morrison Government’s Advancing Women in STEM 2020 action plan, was updated this month and will be updated annually until 2029.