Science and Technology:

Considerations for Maintaining U.S. Competitiveness in Quantum Computing, Synthetic Biology, and Other Potentially Transformational Research Areas

GAO-18-656: Published: Sep 26, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2018.

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    Scientific and technological innovation is an important component of U.S. economic competitiveness and prosperity. In this October 4, 2018 Facebook Live chat, we talk with GAO Director John Neumann about transformational technology areas, such as quantum computing, synthetic biology, and other innovations that could change our everyday lives.

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Contact:

John Neumann
(202) 512-3841
neumannj@gao.gov

 

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Many federal agencies support research on quantum computing and synthetic biology. Experts we convened identified considerations, such as taking a strategic approach, that could help maintain U.S. competitiveness in these and other fields.

We found that agencies have taken steps to collaborate on these activities, such as creating new interagency groups, but have not fully implemented key collaboration practices—e.g., agreeing on roles and responsibilities. We recommended they implement these practices.

Quantum computing device that simulates the behavior of atoms or molecules to manipulate data

A photo of a quantum computing device.

A photo of a quantum computing device.

Multimedia:

  • GAO: Transformational Technologies Cuppa GAO: Coffee with Our Experts (Facebook Live Chat)VIDEO: Transformational Technologies Cuppa GAO: Coffee with Our Experts (Facebook Live Chat)
    Scientific and technological innovation is an important component of U.S. economic competitiveness and prosperity. In this October 4, 2018 Facebook Live chat, we talk with GAO Director John Neumann about transformational technology areas, such as quantum computing, synthetic biology, and other innovations that could change our everyday lives.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

John Neumann
(202) 512-3841
neumannj@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Multiple federal and nonfederal entities support research for transformational technological advances in the areas of quantum computing—the manipulation of bits of data using the behavior of individual atoms, molecules, or other quantum systems to potentially outperform supercomputers—and synthetic biology—the combination of biology and engineering to create or modify biological systems. GAO found that at least 6 agencies support quantum computing research; at least 10 agencies support synthetic biology research; and nonfederal entities, such as universities and businesses, support research in both areas.

Quantum Computing Device (Left) and 3D Bioprinted Coronary Artery (Right)

Quantum Computing Device (Left) and 3D Bioprinted Coronary Artery (Right)

Agency officials said they coordinate on quantum computing and synthetic biology through efforts such as conferences and interagency groups, but GAO found that certain new efforts have not fully implemented selected leading collaboration practices. The quantum computing group, co-chaired by officials from 4 agencies, and the synthetic biology group, led by the National Science Foundation, have taken initial steps to implement some leading practices GAO identified that can enhance and sustain interagency collaboration. For example, both groups agreed to coordinate their research, and participating agencies documented agreement with the quantum computing group's purpose through a charter. However, the groups have not fully implemented other practices, such as agreeing on roles and responsibilities and identifying common outcomes, that could help ensure they effectively marshal agencies' efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing and synthetic biology.

Experts identified considerations for maintaining U.S. competitiveness through transformational technological advances. The considerations broadly address federal and nonfederal entities' roles in supporting such advances and include:

developing a strategic approach using consortia or other mechanisms to bring together potential partners;

fostering an environment in which information is shared among researchers while also considering the risks of information sharing;

focusing on technology development and commercialization, for example, by providing support across multiple stages of technology innovation; and

strengthening the science and technology workforce through training, recruiting, and retaining talent.

Why GAO Did This Study

Scientific and technological innovation contributes to U.S. economic competitiveness and prosperity. Federal agencies support transformational technological advances—those that result in new or significantly enhanced technologies—by, for example, funding research (nearly $70 billion in obligations in fiscal year 2017).

GAO was asked to examine support for research that could lead to transformational technological advances. This report (1) describes federal agencies' and nonfederal entities' support for such research in selected areas, (2) examines federal agencies' coordination on this research, and (3) describes experts' views on considerations for maintaining U.S. competitiveness through such advances. GAO selected quantum computing and synthetic biology as examples of research areas that could lead to transformational technological advances. GAO reviewed agency documents and interviewed federal officials, subject matter experts, and stakeholders. GAO also worked with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to convene a meeting to solicit views from 19 experts selected from government, academia, and industry, among others.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the agencies leading the interagency quantum computing and synthetic biology groups take steps to fully implement leading collaboration practices. The agencies agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-3841 or neumannj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation despite expressing some concerns about required resources and, as of January 2020, had taken steps to work with the other co-chairs of the National Science and Technology Council's Quantum Information Science (QIS) Subcommittee to begin implementing it. The QIS Subcommittee, created pursuant to the National Quantum Initiative Act, enacted in 2018, continues to be led by four co-chairs from the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation (NSF), and OSTP. The law requires, among other things, that the QIS Subcommittee develop a 5-year Strategic Plan by December 21, 2019. In January 2020, an NSF official and OSTP staff reported that a draft strategic plan was under review. According to the NSF official, the strategic plan will include an assessment of actions the agencies are taking in support of QIS, and, in particular, the degree to which the agencies have developed mechanisms that enhance and sustain collaboration. The official said the draft plan will be submitted to the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, which conducts independent assessments of and advises the President and QIS Subcommittee on matters related to the National Quantum Initiative. The NSF official reported that the membership of the Advisory Committee will be announced in the spring 2020 timeframe, at which time it will begin its review of the draft strategic plan. In addition to the development of a strategic plan, the National Quantum Initiative Act called for the establishment of a National Quantum Coordination Office to support the QIS Subcommittee, which OSTP formed in March 2019. Following this, in Oct. 2019, the QIS Subcommittee created three interagency working groups: (1) the science working group is working to coordinate the scientific and technical aspects of programs; (2) the workforce, infrastructure, and industry working group is working to identify workforce and technology needs; and (3) the end-user group is working to connect the nation's research and development community, including academics and industry players, to potential early adopters in the federal government. Taking this action will help to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and could help ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing. When the strategic plan is finalized and we confirm what additional actions the QIS Subcommittee has taken to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: As the Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science (QIS Subcommittee) moves forward, the Office of Science and Technology Policy co-chair, in coordination with other co-chairs and participating agency officials, should take steps to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Science and Technology Policy

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Commerce agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation and, as of January 2020, had taken steps to work with the other co-chairs of the National Science and Technology Council's Quantum Information Science (QIS) Subcommittee to begin implementing it. The QIS Subcommittee, created pursuant to the National Quantum Initiative Act, enacted in 2018, continues to be led by four co-chairs from the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation (NSF), and OSTP. The law requires, among other things, that the QIS Subcommittee develop a 5-year Strategic Plan by December 21, 2019. In January 2020, an NSF official and OSTP staff reported that a draft strategic plan was under review. According to the NSF official, the strategic plan will include an assessment of actions the agencies are taking in support of QIS, and, in particular, the degree to which the agencies have developed mechanisms that enhance and sustain collaboration. The official said the draft plan will be submitted to the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, which conducts independent assessments of and advises the President and QIS Subcommittee on matters related to the National Quantum Initiative. The NSF official reported that the membership of the Advisory Committee will be announced in the spring 2020 timeframe, at which time it will begin its review of the draft strategic plan. In addition to the development of a strategic plan, the National Quantum Initiative Act called for the establishment of a National Quantum Coordination Office to support the QIS Subcommittee, which OSTP formed in March 2019. Following this, in Oct. 2019 the QIS Subcommittee created three interagency working groups: (1) the science working group is working to coordinate the scientific and technical aspects of programs; (2) the workforce, infrastructure, and industry working group is working to identify workforce and technology needs; and (3) the end-user group is working to connect the nation's research and development community, including academics and industry players, to potential early adopters in the federal government. Taking this action will help to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and could help ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing. When the strategic plan is finalized and we confirm what additional actions the QIS Subcommittee has taken to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: As the QIS Subcommittee moves forward, the Department of Commerce co-chair, in coordination with other co-chairs and participating agency officials, should take steps to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Energy agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation and, as of January 2020, had taken steps to work with the other co-chairs of the National Science and Technology Council's Quantum Information Science (QIS) Subcommittee to begin implementing it. The QIS Subcommittee, created pursuant to the National Quantum Initiative Act, enacted in 2018, continues to be led by four co-chairs from the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation (NSF), and OSTP. The law requires, among other things, that the QIS Subcommittee develop a 5-year Strategic Plan by December 21, 2019. In January 2020, an NSF official and OSTP staff reported that a draft strategic plan was under review. According to the NSF official, the strategic plan will include an assessment of actions the agencies are taking in support of QIS, and, in particular, the degree to which the agencies have developed mechanisms that enhance and sustain collaboration. The official said the draft plan will be submitted to the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, which conducts independent assessments of and advises the President and QIS Subcommittee on matters related to the National Quantum Initiative. The NSF official reported that the membership of the Advisory Committee will be announced in the spring 2020 timeframe, at which time it will begin its review of the draft strategic plan. In addition to the development of a strategic plan, the National Quantum Initiative Act called for the establishment of a National Quantum Coordination Office to support the QIS Subcommittee, which OSTP formed in March 2019. Following this, in Oct. 2019 the QIS Subcommittee created three interagency working groups: (1) the science working group is working to coordinate the scientific and technical aspects of programs; (2) the workforce, infrastructure, and industry working group is working to identify workforce and technology needs; and (3) the end-user group is working to connect the nation's research and development community, including academics and industry players, to potential early adopters in the federal government. Taking this action will help to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and could help ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing. When the strategic plan is finalized and we confirm what additional actions the QIS Subcommittee has taken to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: As the QIS Subcommittee moves forward, the Department of Energy co-chair, in coordination with other co-chairs and participating agency officials, should take steps to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The National Science Foundation agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation and, as of January 2020, had taken steps to work with the other co-chairs of the National Science and Technology Council's Quantum Information Science (QIS) Subcommittee to begin implementing it. The QIS Subcommittee, created pursuant to the National Quantum Initiative Act, enacted in 2018, continues to be led by four co-chairs from the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation (NSF), and OSTP. The law requires, among other things, that the QIS Subcommittee develop a 5-year Strategic Plan by December 21, 2019. In January 2020, an NSF official and OSTP staff reported that a draft strategic plan was under review. According to the NSF official, the strategic plan will include an assessment of actions the agencies are taking in support of QIS, and, in particular, the degree to which the agencies have developed mechanisms that enhance and sustain collaboration. The official said the draft plan will be submitted to the National Quantum Initiative Advisory Committee, which conducts independent assessments of and advises the President and QIS Subcommittee on matters related to the National Quantum Initiative. The NSF official reported that the membership of the Advisory Committee will be announced in the spring 2020 timeframe, at which time it will begin its review of the draft strategic plan. In addition to the development of a strategic plan, the National Quantum Initiative Act called for the establishment of a National Quantum Coordination Office to support the QIS Subcommittee, which OSTP formed in March 2019. Following this, in Oct. 2019 the QIS Subcommittee created three interagency working groups: (1) the science working group is working to coordinate the scientific and technical aspects of programs; (2) the workforce, infrastructure, and industry working group is working to identify workforce and technology needs; and (3) the end-user group is working to connect the nation's research and development community, including academics and industry players, to potential early adopters in the federal government. Taking this action will help to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and could help ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing. When the strategic plan is finalized and we confirm what additional actions the QIS Subcommittee has taken to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: As the QIS Subcommittee moves forward, the National Science Foundation co-chair, in coordination with other co-chairs and participating agency officials, should take steps to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: The National Science Foundation (NSF) agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation and, as of January 2020, had taken some steps to implement it. In November 2018, the Interagency Working Group on Synthetic Biology was formally established under the Biological Sciences Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council. The co-chairs of the Interagency Working Group on Synthetic Biology are officials from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and NSF. The charter for the working group states that the group is to facilitate coordination and collaboration across 16 federal agencies. In October 2019, the working group hosted an Interagency Synthetic Biology Workshop to examine a roadmap that included basic science, enabling technologies, infrastructure and workforce needs in the area of synthetic biology. The workshop included 100 participants across the federal government, academia and industry, according to NSF officials. On the final day of the workshop participants from federal agencies used the input from the workshop to prepare a list of priority areas for investment along with agencies interested in participating in those priority areas. In January 2020, NSF officials reported that among the next steps for the working group was to develop a federal strategic roadmap for synthetic biology. Officials also reported that the working group is actively preparing a memorandum of understanding to create policies that will enable more sharing of information and collaboration. Taking this action will help to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and could help ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in synthetic biology. When we confirm what additional actions the working group has taken to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: As the Interagency Working Group on Synthetic Biology moves forward, the Director of the National Science Foundation, in coordination with participating agency officials, should take steps to fully implement leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: National Science Foundation

 

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