Go back

Willetts adds quantum science as informal ninth ‘great technology’

Science and universities minister David Willetts has named quantum technology as an additional emerging technology to those identified in his Eight Great Technologies pamphlet.

Asked by Research Fortnight whether a full second set would succeed the original eight, Willetts suggests there could be room for an updated, informal addition. He uses the temporary exhibits on the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square as an analogy: “I’m intrigued by what I call the ‘fourth-plinth challenge’.” He adds: “I think I had one reference to quantum technologies in my discussion of IT and Big Data in the pamphlet, and that’s probably an area where there’s now greater interest than I captured then.”

But Willetts is reluctant to replace the existing set with a second batch formally, saying that nobody would take him seriously if he did. “The eight great technologies are supposed to be sufficiently rooted to last for a time. You don’t want a new set a year later.” He adds, however, that there should be a “bit of flexibility”.

Responding to the comments, John Morton, a reader in nanoelectronics at University College London, said the field had the potential “to revolutionise industries ranging from computing and security to scientific research”. With the right support, he added, the UK could be a world leader in the area.

Quantum technology has also drawn the attention of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which held a workshop on the subject’s development in October. And in July, Willetts attended a roundtable discussion together with researchers and industrial representatives to consider how to see quantum science through to technological applications.

Ian Walmsley, professor of experimental physics at the University of Oxford, warns that quantum technology differs “from the other eight, in that its horizon for serious economic impact is much further out”. However, he says that long-term investment and exploiting early wins could put the UK at the forefront of the field.

Asked to what extent the research councils should take the eight great technologies into account when considering grant proposals for applied research, Willetts said: “The Haldane principle is engraved on my heart, so we have to be very careful.” However, there has been a “striking” widespread acceptance of the initiative, “so it has helped shape an agenda”.

Willetts also says that the 2015-16 funding allocations for the research councils will be announced as quickly as possible after the autumn statement, which is scheduled for 4 December.