By Carolyn Mathas

The UK touts itself as a world leader in quantum technologies and the truth is, they actually are. The UK has been very strong where academia meets industry, and the country has a good track record of funding and then commercializing research. Much effort has lately been spent on training those that have little experience of computer engineering and recruiting mathematicians and computer scientists who are unfamiliar with quantum technologies, and the efforts are bearing fruit.

One organization, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, is armed with a budget of more than £8 billion. UKRI is comprised of seven disciplinary research councils, Research England and Innovate UK—home to the industrial challenge on quantum.

Why is UKRI unique?

The Quantum Technologies Challenge at UKRI was launched in 2018 under the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, receiving £173 million of funding. It provides catalytic grant funding for strategic collaborative projects and in doing so they encourage companies to work closely with universities and with each other. This community has in three years created new companies, launched new products, and raised hundreds of millions of pounds of investment. Its success is linked to:

  1. Setting up hubs which are now emulated by other countries.
  2. Research, even when purely in universities, is linked to commercialization opportunities.

According to Roger McKinlay, Commercialising Quantum Technologies Challenge Director for  UKRI. “On a global scale, we’re seeing enormous capital private capital flowing in. There is a vibrant community of start-up companies that are aiming to build the quantum computers of the future emerging predominantly from the UK’s academic sector and driving excellent technical work. They are starting to raise significant investment on the back of robust and credible business models. Compared to a year ago, more money is flowing into quantum start-ups – partly through collaborative research projects funded by government-backed programs, but also from increased interest among investment firms.”

Increased interest has been driven in part by the merger between UK’s Cambridge Quantum and Honeywell Quantum Solutions that formed the world’s largest integrated quantum computing company called Quantinuum. Other start-up firms report increased interest from venture capitalists, which together with government R&D grants is allowing even very young companies to expand rapidly.

When comparing the UK’s efforts to the U.S., “We’re in a slightly different situation than the US, because we don’t have those tech giants. In the UK we must allow private investors the freedom to invest in what they need to win, otherwise the UK won’t be attractive. However, you also must publicly invest to keep a seat at the table so that the UK is getting sovereign control over what it needs to influence standards and to attract the right talent. This is a difficult game and it’s a highly national-specific game,” McKinlay explained.

While clearly the UK’s efforts under UKRI have been successful, there is now uncertainty as to how it will be able to retain its research efforts and its researchers.

A Fallout from Brexit

There’s a perfect storm brewing surrounding the funding of the UK’s scientific community. Against the backdrop of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson stepping down and Science Minister George Freeman’s resignation, both posts are unfilled until September. Economically, the country is, along with the rest of the world, facing the inflation in 40 years, as energy costs continue to soar.

The major issue, of course, is access to the EU’s flagship research program Horizon Europe. There was a deal between the UK and the EU on the table for the past two years. It enabled the UK to be an associate member of Horizon Europe. This gave UK researchers equal rights to those researchers in EU countries. Negotiations have faltered based on politics between the UK and the EU over a border implementation between the Republic of Ireland, a part of the EU and Northern Ireland, a part of the UK. What’s at stake if negotiations fail is daunting, and includes:

  • The EU funds Horizon Europe until 2027. This includes the European Research Council that awards fellowships for basic research. The UK researchers will lose access to funding totaling nearly $101 billion USD
  • Recently, the European Commission cancelled grants by UK researchers that won Horizon Europe funding and the EU claims that UK researchers can take the grants only if they agree to transfer to an institution in an EU member country. So far, they have cancelled grants of 115 applicants.
  • UK researchers can still respond to Horizon Europe calls as ‘third country applicants,’ joining consortia with a minimum of three applicants from EU member states or associated countries, if they have their own funding. The UK government has stepped up to fund all eligible UK entities participating in any such consortia signing grant agreements before 31 March 2025

Based on the failed negotiations, the UK created a “Plan B” alternative to Horizon Europe, publishing details in a policy paper, titled Supporting UK R&D and Collaborative Research Beyond European Programmes.

The UK, however, consistently maintains that it does not want to leave Horizon programs as it will clearly hamstring its research efforts in the near term. For example, it will take a lot of time and work to form new relationships and begin collaborating with such other countries as Australia, Japan, India, etc. as well as maintaining collaboration within the companies and countries in Europe.

What is likely, however, is that nothing will happen until a new Prime Minister is seated. At that point, the future of UK’s Horizon access is likely to be announced, or the UK’s international research program, Plan B will go forward.

Amid all of the uncertainty, the UK is still well-positioned to be a major player in the quantum industry. It has been doing over the past two years what several countries are just beginning. Its infrastructure to succeed is in place. Could the Horizon uncertainty cause a ripple in the UK’s efforts? Of course. But it’s one that they will likely iron out quickly.

August 22, 2022