Science and Technology in the Integrated Review: Stretching the Quantum Net Too Thin

Fabians' Defence & Security
4 min readMay 19, 2021

The UK’s limited research budget needs to focus on only a few areas where we can genuinely develop a real competitive advantage. We would do well to do away with science fiction fantasies like directed energy weapons and focus on concrete goals.

The Government’s 2021 Integrated Review identifies quantum technology as an area in which it needs to invest, as part of a broader goal of ‘sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology’. Alongside quantum technology, artificial intelligence and engineering biology are identified as key emergent fields, although negligible detail is given as to what this means.

Gautam Kambhampati is a doctoral candidate at Imperial College London, and holds a postgraduate degree in quantum computing. His research interests are in both quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

In bringing science and technology (S&T) into the remit of the Integrated Review, the Government correctly identifies that S&T is both a metric of power, as an indication of how innovative and economically developed a country is, as well as an instrument of power in itself. This is to be welcomed. However, as in other areas of the Review, detail is scant and funding is opaque.

On the face of it, the report provides for £6.6 billion over four years for six different areas: ‘space, cyber, quantum technologies, engineering biology, directed energy weapons, and advanced high-speed missiles’. This provides for £275 million per field per year, on average.

To put this figure into context, it is worth highlighting the costs of producing useful technology in some of the areas mentioned. PsiQuantum, one of the more promising quantum computing start-ups in Silicon Valley, has raised $445 million (£320 million) over the past two years and is likely some years away from producing a useful quantum computer. DeepMind, the UCL based AI start-up now owned by Alphabet (Google’s parent company) costs their owner around £470 million per year in losses. A single GPS satellite costs around $500 million (£360 million) for the United States to produce and launch.

The scattershot approach to investment the Review proposes does not work if funding is short. As it stands, the money proposed by the Government would possibly be enough to start research in several fields, but not enough to produce anything useful or have any technology leave the laboratory. This seems to be the story of UK science and technology businesses: highly innovative companies get their start here, and then are sold off to foreign investors when British money dries up. It is the story of ARM and of DeepMind. If the Government is serious about making science and technology a part of strategic British power, then it cannot allow this story to continue. Indeed, the Review itself identifies this:

… large technology companies are able to grow more powerful by absorbing innovations produced by small companies. Competition is therefore intensifying, shaped in particular by multinational firms with the backing of states …p. 30

The Government’s recent intervention on national security grounds in the sale of ARM to NVIDIA shows that they too might understand this; however, the root cause is simply a lack of funding available in the UK.

Having said all of that, it would not be prudent to merely pump endless amounts of money into unproven technologies. The solution to this dilemma for future Governments is to invest deeply in a narrow selection of technologies and protect existing industries from external takeover, rather than investing in vague areas like ‘quantum technology’.

For example, quantum communications and quantum sensors are both technologies that exist now and have the potential to significantly impact both civilian and military worlds. Investing deeply in a quantum internet (something that does not require quantum computing) would make the UK extremely attractive to banks, who are always interested in new ways to improve security. Quantum sensors, on the other hand, have many military applications. For example, extremely accurate quantum accelerometers have the potential to allow submarines to remain submerged for much longer stretches of time (one current limiting factor is surfacing to get a GPS lock). There are, no doubt, similar examples in the fields of AI and engineering biology. We would do well to do away with science fiction fantasies like directed energy weapons and focus on concrete goals.

The inclusion of science and technology in reviews of defence, foreign policy, and strategic power is welcome and should be continued by future Governments. However, policy should focus on identifying a few specific technologies for deep investment that takes the technology out of the laboratory and into society. Failing to do this will result in a repeat of the story of British funds being used to develop technology that is then sold to foreign companies rather than being developed into British products.



Fabians' Defence & Security

Defence & Security arm of the Fabian Society, commenting on UK defence and national security policy.