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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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Fast Facts

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.

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Highlights

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.

Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Priority Rec.
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)
Closed – Implemented
OSTP agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation but expressed some concerns about required resources. Nevertheless, OSTP took steps to work with the other co-chairs of the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science (SCQIS) to implement it. The SCQIS, 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. In addition, the National Quantum Initiative Act called for the establishment of a National Quantum Coordination Office to support the SCQIS, which OSTP formed in March 2019. Pub. L. No. 115-368, § 102, 132 Stat. 5092, 5094-95 (2018). Following this, the SCQIS created several interagency groups to support work under six policy thrusts identified in a September 2018 National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science. Since 2018, OSTP has provided information at several points on the various activities and products resulting from these efforts. Additionally, in January 2023, OSTP provided information describing how each of the leading practices GAO evaluated are being implemented. The information OSTP provided in January 2023 more clearly articulated how some information it previously provided reflected implementation of leading practices such as defining and articulating common outcomes, and establishing mutually reinforcing or joint strategies. OSTP also provided more detailed information on how other leading practices, such as agreeing on roles and responsibilities, are being implemented. Further, OSTP provided the January 2023 National Quantum Initiative Supplement to the President's FY2023 Budget that highlights agency activities undertaken in support of the six policy thrusts in the September 2018 strategic overview. The report demonstrates the substantial investments federal agencies are making in quantum information science, provides high-level information on the organization of these activities, and, according to OSTP, serves as the main mechanism for reporting on results. By taking steps to fully implement the leading collaboration practices GAO has identified across the SCQIS's areas of effort, OSTP and the other agency co-chairs will be better able to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing.
Department of Commerce 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)
Closed – Implemented
Commerce agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation and took steps to work with the other co-chairs of the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science (SCQIS) to implement it. The SCQIS, 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 (NIST), Department of Energy, National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Pub. L. No. 115-368, § 103, 132 Stat. 5092, 5095-96 (2018). The SCQIS created several interagency groups to support work under six policy thrusts identified in a September 2018 National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science. Since 2018, OSTP has provided information at several points on the various activities and products resulting from these efforts. Additionally, in January 2023, OSTP provided information describing how each of the leading practices GAO evaluated are being implemented. The information OSTP provided in January 2023 more clearly articulated how some information it previously provided reflected implementation of leading practices such as defining and articulating common outcomes, and establishing mutually reinforcing or joint strategies. OSTP also provided more detailed information on how other leading practices, such as agreeing on roles and responsibilities, are being implemented. Further, OSTP provided the January 2023 National Quantum Initiative Supplement to the President's FY2023 Budget that highlights agency activities undertaken in support of the six policy thrusts in the September 2018 strategic overview. The report demonstrates the substantial investments federal agencies are making in quantum information science, provides high-level information on the organization of these activities, and, according to OSTP, serves as the main mechanism for reporting on results. By taking steps to fully implement the leading collaboration practices GAO has identified across the SCQIS's areas of effort, OSTP and the other agency co-chairs will be better able to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing.
Department of Energy 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)
Closed – Implemented
DOE agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation and took steps to work with the other co-chairs of the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science (SCQIS) to implement it. The SCQIS, 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 the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Pub. L. No. 115-368, § 103, 132 Stat. 5092, 5095-96 (2018). The SCQIS created several interagency groups to support work under six policy thrusts identified in a September 2018 National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science. Since 2018, OSTP has provided information at several points on the various activities and products resulting from these efforts. Additionally, in January 2023, OSTP provided information describing how each of the leading practices GAO evaluated are being implemented. The information OSTP provided in January 2023 more clearly articulated how some information it previously provided reflected implementation of leading practices such as defining and articulating common outcomes, and establishing mutually reinforcing or joint strategies. OSTP also provided more detailed information on how other leading practices, such as agreeing on roles and responsibilities, are being implemented. Further, OSTP provided the January 2023 National Quantum Initiative Supplement to the President's FY2023 Budget that highlights agency activities undertaken in support of the six policy thrusts in the September 2018 strategic overview. The report demonstrates the substantial investments federal agencies are making in quantum information science, provides high-level information on the organization of these activities, and, according to OSTP, serves as the main mechanism for reporting on results. By taking steps to fully implement the leading collaboration practices GAO has identified across the SCQIS's areas of effort, OSTP and the other agency co-chairs will be better able to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing.
National Science Foundation 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)
Closed – Implemented
NSF agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation and took steps to work with the other co-chairs of the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Quantum Information Science (SCQIS) to implement it. The SCQIS, 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, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Pub. L. No. 115-368, § 103, 132 Stat. 5092, 5095-96 (2018). The SCQIS created several interagency groups to support work under six policy thrusts identified in a September 2018 National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science. Since 2018, OSTP has provided information at several points on the various activities and products resulting from these efforts. Additionally, in January 2023, OSTP provided information describing how each of the leading practices GAO evaluated are being implemented. The information OSTP provided in January 2023 more clearly articulated how some information it previously provided reflected implementation of leading practices such as defining and articulating common outcomes, and establishing mutually reinforcing or joint strategies. OSTP also provided more detailed information on how other leading practices, such as agreeing on roles and responsibilities, are being implemented. Further, OSTP provided the January 2023 National Quantum Initiative Supplement to the President's FY2023 Budget that highlights agency activities undertaken in support of the six policy thrusts in the September 2018 strategic overview. The report demonstrates the substantial investments federal agencies are making in quantum information science, provides high-level information on the organization of these activities, and, according to OSTP, serves as the main mechanism for reporting on results. By taking steps to fully implement the leading collaboration practices GAO has identified across the SCQIS's areas of effort, OSTP and the other agency co-chairs will be better able to enhance and strengthen interagency collaboration and ensure that agencies effectively marshal their efforts to maintain U.S. competitiveness in quantum computing.
National Science Foundation 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)
Open – Partially Addressed
NSF agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation and, as of March 2023, had taken some steps to implement it. According to information NSF provided in January 2020, the Interagency Synthetic Biology Working Group was formally established under the Biological Sciences Subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council in November 2018. The working group co-chairs included officials from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and NSF. The working group was charged with facilitating coordination and collaboration across 16 federal agencies. In October 2019, the working group hosted an interagency workshop to examine a roadmap that included basic science, enabling technologies, infrastructure, and workforce needs in the area of synthetic biology, according to the information NSF provided in January 2020. The workshop included 100 participants across the federal government, academia, and industry. 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. The information NSF provided in January 2020 indicated that one of the next steps for the working group was to develop a federal strategic roadmap for synthetic biology. NSF also reported that the working group was preparing a memorandum of understanding to create policies that would enable more sharing of information and collaboration. According to information NSF later provided, a document that would provide a framework for coordination in the area of synthetic biology was under development. In a March 2023 update, NSF stated its leadership of the Interagency Synthetic Biology Working Group; participation in the coordinated response to activities associated with the implementation of an Executive Order on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe and Secure American Bioeconomy; and NSF's leadership in collaborating across agencies to address bioeconomy directives set forth in the Chips and Science Act of 2022 are illustrative of NSF's implementation of leading practices that enhance and sustain collaboration. We have requested additional information from NSF on how the leading practices for collaboration we evaluated in our 2018 report are being implemented, and will reassess the status of this recommendation when NSF provides additional information.

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