by Freeke Heijman
Usually this blog is about research topics. When I was asked to write an item on the political aspects of quantum, I was excited but also a bit hesitant: would this parallel universe, in which politicians, executives and government officials rule the world, be interesting to the research community? What could I share without breaking rules of confidentiality while keeping some of the juicy details that make life interesting? How could I bridge the gap between these two worlds that are so completely different in their values, methods and people?
I decided to take up the challenge. After all, these dilemmas are the very same ones people with two legs in two different communities have to deal with every day. It is about making an effort to understand and find your way in different cultures and trying to get across some glimpse of these worlds to the people you work with on both ends. The last part almost feels like a mission impossible to me – the more reason to give it a shot in this blog!
In the fall of 2012 the new Minister of Economic Affairs, Henk Kamp, was planning his round of introductory visits throughout the country to get familiar with key companies and institutes in the Dutch knowledge economy in sectors such as High-Tech Systems and Materials, ICT, Chemistry and Sustainable Energy. A visit to one of the universities was also in the making. Being the head of strategy for the Innovation and Enterprise Department at that time, I was involved and we decided to visit Delft University of Technology. The discovery of signatures of Majorana fermions was all over the news back then so we included a quick meet-up with Prof. Leo Kouwenhoven. So, in January a delegation of the minister, state-secretary and chairmen of the confederation of Netherlands industry and employers, the associations of universities and national labs and some other VIPs sat down at the “Coffee table” at the department of Quantum Transport in Delft for a lecture on Majorana fermions. Kouwenhoven made an effort to get a glimpse of his world across to this group of men-in-suits with limited success: when we left after 15 minutes their eyes showed more signs of confusion and bewilderment than of understanding. But the contact was established, and, anyway, wasn’t it Feynman who said that no one really understands quantum mechanics?
We met a few times more because Delft had certain ambitions to move beyond excellent academic research towards technology development and innovation—the core of our innovation policy. It turned out our regular policy instruments didn’t fit this particular case that well, something that Kouwenhoven mentioned in an interview in a national newspaper. We looked into the matter carefully and decided to try something special: we got the relevant topsectors and national science and innovation funders at the table and convinced them to kick-start the QuTech initiative with a carrot and stick approach – meaning a small financial backing from the Ministry to TNO, the engineering partner foreseen for QuTech under conditions of private co-funding. This may sound trivial but in fact it was a very rocky ride. We were faced with a lot of pushback from all sides, also because the government was cutting down on R&D expenditures as a whole as a result of the economic downturn. Why would we support this new initiative while other programs were cut off?
After a lot of talking and independent analysis of policy advisors to fuel the objective and neutral decision-making process, there was enough confidence and financial commitment in October 2013 to launch QuTech during the annual national innovation event in de Ridderzaal (the Hall of Knights) in The Hague. From that point onwards, it was up to the Delft team, headed by Kouwenhoven, to form QuTech. I went back to attend other business at the Ministry—the negotiations of a National Action Plan to get the funding back on track for small to medium enterprises (SMEs), which taken to mean enterprises which employ fewer than 250 persons and which have an annual turnover not exceeding 50 million euro. QuTech grew explosively in this first phase. New PI’s and staff members were hired, and people worked hard to get the collaboration with TNO in place. In the meantime, the economic sentiment in NL was still very low – there were no signs of recovery yet and despite of the additional measures a lot of SMEs were in financial trouble. The government policy followed two tracks: short term interventions to stimulate recovery (such as the national action plan for SME finance) and strengthening of R&D, innovation and entrepreneurship for long-term competitiveness with generic instruments targeting all companies and sectors and thematic Public Private Partnership policies focused on specific themes with high impact on societal challenges and future growth. This long-term approach needed concreteness to showcase best practices and restore self-confidence. Despite the crisis, a lot of innovation was taking place in the Netherlands with profound economic and societal potential! A new scheme was designed to identify a few National Icon Projects to shine a light on the most promising examples.
QuTech was selected as one of these national icon projects after an assessment by an independent jury and the Minister of Economic Affairs was assigned to be the project’s personal ambassador. We organized diplomatic and promotional activities, such as a trip with the Minister and Prof. Ronald Hanson to China and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen during a state visit of our King and Queen to Denmark. For the preparations of this MoU I first met Prof. Charles Marcus; I remember I had to write him for the first time on the same day that the whole world was chanting “je suis Charlie” because of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
QuTech itself experienced some difficulties in dealing with the funding terms and conditions of the various funders: tariff structures were not consistent and each funder applied their own rules for allocation and accountability. Some coordination was needed to get all partners aligned and give QuTech room to manouvre within a consistent governance and funding framework. In the context of the national icon sponsorship, we started a new round of discussions with the public partners, leading to the signing of the 10-year Partner covenant on 1 June 2015. €141 mln. public base funding was secured with a first midterm review foreseen in 2018, that is being finalized at this moment by a review committee chaired by Prof. Robbert Dijkgraaf.
In the background we were also starting to get engaged in the European arena. Delft University of Technology was active in the Knowledge4Innovation network, a platform with a wide variety of stakeholders with the goal to make innovation and research the top priority for Europe and to create the best possible framework conditions and support mechanisms. They organized a meeting in the European Parliament to get quantum on the political agenda. As a follow-up, on January 15th, 2015, I first talked to Prof. Tommaso Calarco on the phone in the context of a new CSA proposal. We had the feeling we could strengthen each other and our meeting would accelerate the developments in Europe big time.
The Netherlands was holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2016 and we were considering to put quantum technologies on the agenda. Henk Kamp discussed this with the Commissioner for Digital Economy Gunther Oettinger when he visited QuTech. We decided to organize a Presidency conference in Amsterdam and to call for a community paper to articulate the opportunity and urgency for Europe to stay at the forefront of the second Quantum Revolution. Tommaso and I discussed the way to proceed at a conference in Leeds. We decided on a small writing team for the Quantum Manifesto including Charles Marcus, Aymard DeTouzalin, Richard Murray, Ignacio Cirac and ourselves. It was great fun to work in this team that combined nationalities, disciplines, networks and personalities. And this document formed the basis for the design of the Quantum Flagship, that is now in operational phase.
It is about five years since I first got involved in the world of Quantum. The field has grown enormously since then in Europe and all over the world. A lot of countries have started national initiatives back to back with the flagship, and the US Senate adopted the National Quantum Initiative Act in December. The Dutch journey also continues with centers of excellence in Delft (QuTech), Amsterdam (QuSoft) and Eindhoven (TU/e) and the growth of a public-private ecosystem with new start-ups and companies like Microsoft and Bluefors on the Delft Quantum Campus. Just a few weeks ago, the new Microsoft Quantum Lab Delft was officially opened by our King Willem-Alexander.
The core challenge in this field is R&D progress, but no doubt policy making in the periphery will also be required in the years to come. It is essential that people keep on investing in bridging the gap between government, academia and industry.
Freeke Heijman is director strategic development at QuTech and special advisor to the Minister on Quantum Technologies. In this context she is responsible for the national policy and investments in QuTech, new international partnerships such as the flagship and development of the QuTech ecosystem. She is a 50-50 liaison between the Ministry of Economic Affairs and QuTech. She has extensive experience in space and innovation policy including in the role of head of unit. She graduated at the TU Delft Policy Analysis and Systems Engineering department in 1999 and started her career at KPN Research.