Quantum science pathway opens up but diversity bedevils workforce plans

The Government has commissioned an urgent report to drive Australia’s National Quantum Strategy but it acknowledges that it will be hamstrung if it can’t succeed with its STEM workforce diversity plans.

The 15-person committee, chaired by Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley AO, will be an integral part of the push to coordinate Australia’s quantum capability across research, industry and government.

Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic wants the strategy by the end of the year.

CSIRO conservatively estimates quantum technology in Australia could be a $4 billion industry in computing, communications and sensing, creating 16,000 jobs by 2040.

Australia’s focus on quantum computation got underway in earnest in 2000 with the Australian Research Council funding for Centre for Quantum computation and Communication Technology Australian Centre of Excellence (CQC2T) from 2003-2010, and refunded ever since.

The Australian Research Council is currently supporting four national Centres of Excellence —the Centres for Engineered Quantum Science (EQUS), Exciton Science, Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET), and Quantum Computation and Communication Technology (CQC2T)—employing more than 500 scientists and running variously until 2023 and 2024.

A research program in a fifth Centre, the Centre for Gravitational Wave Astronomy (OzGrav) is using gravity-wave astronomy, and Defence has established a Next Generation Technology fund with quantum technologies as one of the seven priority areas.

A 2019 research paper in Quantum Science and Technology says more than two decades of support for quantum engineering, science, and technology has paved the way for significant scientific outputs and exciting translation efforts in Australia.

“The CQC2T has demonstrated clear international leadership in quantum computation and quantum communications research,” the authors concluded in their paper, adding that it had achieved several world leading research outcomes including:

  • the highest fidelity, longest coherence time qubits in the solid state
  • engineered single atom devices
  • optically addressed a single atom
  • created the world’s longest lived quantum memory

Minister Husic said: “We cannot afford to let that competitive advantage slip.

“The $1 billion critical technologies fund, part of the National Reconstruction Fund, will also be available to support quantum industries.

“We need to ensure we embed quantum capability and value here in Australia. As Minister, it is not my job to say what can’t be done, but to drive ambition for what we can achieve together in quantum technology.”

The CEO of Science and Technology Australia welcomed the new initiative, particularly the mix of academic and industry on the committee.

Misha Schubert says Australia is on the cusp of next era, large scale, rapid technology advance.

“Australia is at the forefront of Quantum Technology globally.

“The review committee will bring together the best minds in science and quantum research and Australia’s leading figures in quantum commercialisation.”

Late last year, under the Morrison Government, $111m was committed to begin the work the committee is looking at.

Schubert described the committee as a “powerful national strategy committee that will think deeply about what further strategic investment is needed.”

The workforce of the future

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, says Australia has become a global leader in quantum expertise, and must now take the opportunity to do the same in other STEM industries.

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Data from STEM Equity Monitor

Dr Foley will chair the National Quantum Advisory Committee, and is also leading the development of a national quantum strategy this year. “Australia’s quantum story is actually a big success story,” Dr Foley says.

“The quantum experience contains important lessons for other STEM-reliant sectors considered critical to Australia’s future – space, cyber, biotechnology, clean energy and semiconductors.

“More than 20 years ago, significant investments were made in research ‘Centres of Excellence’, which meant Australia built a rich base of quantum research and talent, and is now home to some of the world’s leading start-ups and quantum companies.

“Now we’re at the technology development phase, we need to follow through urgently with upskilling our workforce, at the same time as we invest in other research to create that culture of innovation and discovery.”

“By funding basic research, Australia keeps its research power in-country. That makes Australia a stronger, more attractive country for the world’s top research talent.

“Lifting STEM participation from school to university is a crucial part of the equation.”

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Data from STEM Equity Monitor

The latest STEM Equity Monitor demonstrates continuing problems with attracting a diverse, local  workforce.

Recent growth in student numbers has been driven almost entirely by international students.

The paper from the Office of the Chief Scientist compares graduate numbers in Natural and Physical Sciences, Information Technology or Engineering – a skills pool essential for the development of many critical industries.

About one in five Australian undergraduate degrees are in the disciplines of Natural and Physical Sciences, Information Technology or Engineering.

Numbers of domestic graduates have either stagnated (Natural Sciences), or fallen (Engineering) since 2017. Only Information Technology has seen an increase, but numbers are still far outstripped by international graduates.

Dr Foley says attracting and retaining international talent remains central but: “We are not graduating sufficient domestic students with relevant skills.

“The tech industries also need skills from the humanities and social sciences, to ensure the regulatory and ethical frameworks are in place, and to have the design and creativity input from the arts.

“It is essential that we continue to support a globally connected research sector that welcomes people with talent and ideas.

“At the same time, we must build domestic capability so that we can realise the transformative potential of the new technologies in our economy and society.”

Misha Schubert points to the non-traditional areas of the population who need to be encouraged into the STEM workforce: women, First Nations people, those from a culturally and linguistically diverse background and people living in our regions.

“Potential workers need to understand that these will be robust jobs of the future. STEM skills are the ultimate problem solver’s skillset, particularly if you want a career that will change the world.”

The “STEM Equity Monitor,” launched in 2020 as part of the Morrison Government’s “Advancing Women in STEM 2020 Action Plan,” was updated this month and will be updated annually until 2029.

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