US Aims to Diversify Its Quantum Workforce Early On
To fill a shortage of quantum scientists, leaders in the field are working to build an inclusive community — starting in grade school.
Quantum information science is an on-the-rise field that merges quantum mechanics-based concepts—or those that hone in on how things operate at the subatomic level—with theories on storing, transmitting, computing or measuring information.
Many argue it will lead to unprecedented breakthroughs across major industries, but QIS is still relatively young among other technology areas, and quantum-ready personnel remain rare and in demand.
“The numbers that I could find said something like a total few thousand quantum experts worldwide. Worldwide, there is a shortage,” Abiodun Ilumoka, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Education and Human Resources Directorate told Nextgov recently. “In the United States, there is definitely a shortage. And yes, there's definitely a diversity gap: a huge diversity gap.”
Passed in late 2018, the National Quantum Initiative Act aims to spur the government’s prioritization of this emerging realm. It incorporates federal mandates to help grow the QIS workforce pipeline. Over the last several months, Nextgov spoke to officials across U.S. public, private and academic sectors about the complexities of quantum career paths, and efforts to help deliberately diversify this up-and-coming talent pool on the front end, before the field is fully realized.
“We're not talking about something like the world's 25 million classical developers. We're talking about a few thousand to tens of thousands—that’s what we're seeing here. So when we say ‘nascent,’ it really is a nascent technology,” said Abe Asfaw, IBM’s Global Lead of Quantum Education and Open Science. “And so how do you take that opportunity, then, to build a community from the ground up that is diverse and inclusive?”
Momentum Presents Opportunity
But today, the U.S. is confronting a need for qualified quantum scientists, engineers and technicians. People with such expertise essentially try to use bizarre features of subatomic phenomena and quantum mechanics that don’t occur in standard physics—like the notion that a quantum system can exist in multiple states simultaneously until observed—to their advantage. They aren’t united in one specific type of academic degree, though most have some science, technology, engineering and math-, or STEM-aligned expertise.
“The way that the field of quantum information science has been approached has been very interdisciplinary,” according to Isabella Bello Martinez, a quantum computing researcher at Booz Allen Hamilton. Colleagues on her team have studied biology, chemistry, psychology and more, while her own background includes some focus on engineering and entrepreneurship. In her current role, Martinez is passionate about assessing what quantum computing means now—and what it might mean for the future.
She said specific areas of study or universities attended matter less in hiring than applicants’ attitudes. It’s about being “willing to think about a field that is new—that we don't really know how things work, we will never understand how atoms work, probably—and looking to work with that uncertainty,” she said. So, those building quantum-centered teams can pick from a wide range of individuals who have studied different subsets of math and science regardless of their final degree.
“However, those fields I'm thinking about, which are mostly physical sciences, are inherently white spaces,” Martinez explained, also noting that there “aren’t a lot of women” who pursue these areas. She reflected on an experience in a professional setting that struck her personally, to shed a little light on what it can sometimes be like for those less represented in the field.
“I was presenting at a conference, talking about what quantum computing is going to mean to the field of communications,” Martinez noted. “And I had a gentleman come up to me after the talk, and tell me something along the lines of ‘I'm so impressed that a young Latina woman was able to give such a good presentation,’ or something to that effect. And I was like, ‘OK, we're leaving,’ and left the conference for the rest of the day. It was awful.”
She considers herself lucky to have not encountered the “exact same icky situation” again since then, but Martinez added, “This also wasn't that long ago, and I think it’s representative of, not even looking at quantum yet, but just looking at physical sciences.”
Diana Franklin, associate professor in Computer Science and Director of Computer Science Education at the University of Chicago, told Nextgov that she, too, has seen how the technology communities that trickle out of these topics generally “have a shortage of people of color” and depending on the subject matter, less women.
“I have definitely felt [the diversity gap]. I mean, there are very few women in my department and very few females in my classes. The ways that it plays out—well, it's interesting for me because in computer science education, actually that is not male-dominated,” Franklin said. “So for me, it's very interesting because I have one community in which I'm normal, and I have another community where I'm very much a minority. And so you can definitely see the difference in just communication patterns and how I'm treated.”
While the federal website quantum.gov emerged amid the Trump administration, it doesn’t house one updated public source that captures comprehensive data reflecting or forecasting the U.S. quantum workforce. What’s become clear more recently, though, is that STEM disciplines with some of the lowest representation of women contribute to the strongest involvement in QIS.
“According to the 2017 NSF Science and Engineering Indicators, women earned a smaller percentage of Bachelor’s degrees than men in the primary quantum-related disciplines: computer sciences (19%), engineering (22%), mathematics and statistics (42%), and physical sciences (40%),” academics who participated in a 2019 symposium regarding the quantum information science and engineering, or QISE, talent pipeline wrote in a subsequent paper. Further, the quantum thinkers said those same indicators suggest “students who identify as Hispanic, Latinx, Black or African American account for a much higher percentage of awarded degrees at the Associate’s” level than at the Bachelor’s degree level.
“While the QISE community is still nascent, emphasizing diversity upfront, rather than as an afterthought, is an essential step forward,” they wrote.
NSF statistics informed those views—and officials within that agency are aware of systemic issues around representation apparent in other technological fields seeping into this realm. As they work to help promote a robust channel for future quantum personnel, federal insiders are also making serious considerations around ensuring it’s more inclusive.
“There are very, very few women and minorities in STEM nationwide,” NSF’s Ilumoka reiterated. “Now, if you consider the quantum technologies emerging—then the diversity gap in quantum is even worse.”
Ilumoka’s interests span complex systems design with artificial intelligence and engineering education. She works in NSF’s Education and Human Resources directorate, which she noted focuses “on getting folks educated in STEM, but also making sure that they're well-prepared for the workplace.”
In December, officials in EHR released a “Dear Colleague Letter,” detailing existing funding opportunities for education-related research and development “to prepare a diverse QISE workforce.” Ilumoka said the move was meant to inspire NSF’s community to craft projects that will inspire and support students’ interest in the space—across many ages and from many backgrounds. It’s just one of several moves NSF made last year to help boost America’s quantum workforce, but together, the programs will account for hundreds of millions of research.
Ilumoka’s colleague Tomasz Durakiewicz, a condensed-matter physicist and program director in NSF’s Division of Materials Research, noted that the letter came after the agency had been deliberately refocusing and renewing its approaches to education, broadening participation and workforce development. That work enabled officials across NSF’s seemingly disparate realms—like physical sciences and education—to connect and share expertise across curriculum development and enable fundamental QIS research.
“The quantum enthusiasm and momentum that is now happening in front of our eyes across this nation brings with it unique opportunities,” Durakiewicz said. “And this is how we want to look at that: There are challenges out there, but every single challenge is an opportunity.”
Eyeing Early Exposure
IBM’s Abe Asfaw went to high school in Ethiopia and was later trained as an electrical engineer. More recently, he completed a doctorate at Princeton, where he focused on quantum computing—a topic Asfaw said he wasn’t introduced to until roughly his senior year of college.
“A barrier to entry, I think,” Asfaw said, “is that we haven't rethought our STEM education in a way that makes quantum mechanics an easy thing to learn—and it's something you encounter very late.”
His industry-based team is now supporting a government-steered effort to help make that happen.
In August, months before dropping the Dear Colleague letter, NSF partnered with the White House to launch the National Q-12 Education Partnership and Q2Work Program. The partnership is meant to bring together public, private and academic experts to ultimately foster the creation of first-of-a-kind materials for K-12 classrooms intended to spark students’ interests in quantum-aligned career fields while the program helps facilitate the community developing those resources. The entities involved collectively “aim to support and grow a quantum workforce that is diverse and equitable,” according to the partnership’s website.
NSF’s Durakiewicz is enthusiastically involved with Q-12 and Q2Work. He explained that they surfaced as the next steps following a virtual workshop the agency hosted earlier last year to produce what would become “Key Concepts for Future Quantum Information Science Learners.” Hours of heated debates unfolded among various stakeholders, he said, and after it was over, those involved made it very clear that they wanted the collaboration to continue on the path toward implementation. Durakiewicz noted that while the Office of Science and Technology Policy and NSF spearhead the partnership, they’re working jointly with industry partners, teachers and academics through it.
“So then you have the full picture here in this project because you have a very strong tie to reality out there down in the trenches—the industrial types, they know exactly what they need, with teachers who are supposed to deliver that but don't always have the right tools in hand—and academics who are developing those tools,” he explained. “And then on top of it, there is OSTP that provides the necessary anchors, so to speak, in this all-of-government approach.”
Partners participating will help design and disseminate a foundation for classroom activities and curricula to spur students’ interest in QIS topics as early as grade school, and broaden access to such studies throughout K-12 education. Q2Work is a coordinating member of the partnership that’ll lead the making of digital tools, collaborative exchanges and other outreach to amplify the resources.
University of Chicago’s Franklin was tapped to co-lead Q2Work.
“This idea that things that happen at the quantum level are so crazy and no one could understand it—it's just not true,” Franklin said. “And so I'm trying to create the resources that connect these things to things you've already figured out in daily life.”
She noted that those involved with Q2Work will host workshops to dive deeper into how NSF’s foundational concepts for quantum learners might be applied for different audiences, and for students at different grade levels.
“I would characterize our effort not as directly interacting with underserved communities and people of color starting out—it's that we want to design for them from day one, instead of designing for people who are already successful,” Franklin noted. “A lot of early computer science outreach activities were people designing for what they wish they had when they were young, which of course, those were the people who already made it in computer science. And if we want to broaden participation, we have to do different types of activities than the ones that you wish you would have. That's been a big challenge to get people to understand in computer science. And so for quantum, we want to start with that.”
Speaking from experience, Booz Allen Hamilton’s Martinez said it’s very good that there is going to be a concerted unifying effort to increase early education in quantum topics. She recalled referencing being taught about the electron model of an atom in grade school in a recent conversation with a male colleague, who’d responded that he wasn’t introduced to the subject until college.
“So that's the kicker, right? I went to a private school,” Martinez said, adding that her teachers empowered female students from an early age. She had access to and was placed into advanced classes, and had a support system and resources to pursue her interests.
“And that is, by far, not the normal experience for someone whose parents are immigrants from Latin America, or someone who is Black growing up in a rural community, or even just communities that are poor, like Rust Belt communities, or communities in the Appalachian that don't have access to those resources,” she said. “And clearly, it didn't bother [my colleague] that he did not learn about quantum until undergrad. Clearly, it captivated his imagination. But I imagine that he had people telling him ‘You are smart, you should pursue science,’ as a child—the same way I did.”
To Martinez, children likely won’t dwell on complicated topics unless they have an inherent interest in them or someone encourages them, and teachers in many of these communities are already too overburdened to learn such weedy topics independently.
“So this is cool, this needs to be done—it can go further,” she said. “Like I would like to see, once this curriculum gets developed a bit more, very deliberate partnerships with the teachers to give them the time, the funds and the support that they need in order to give their students support that they need.”
Among the Q2Work program’s various founding members was IBM. The company for years now has been rolling out quantum-centered educational activities that incorporate device access and events like hackathons to inspire its next generation of workers. Officials released an open-source quantum software platform known as Qiskit, and the Qiskit Textbook and Qiskit Global Summer School to help outsiders learn quantum computation using it. Those are essentially a collection of tools that allow almost anyone to write and run programs on quantum computers.
“The goal of all these open-source efforts is to work with the community to build everything—including the quantum computing software and the educational materials. I am seeing 16-year-olds contributing to our open-source quantum computing textbook and just wondering how much times have changed because these resources were not accessible to me at that time,” Asfaw said. “And so that's one of the things that makes all of this education work rewarding is seeing things like that.”
On top of other pursuits, the company aims to make its Quantum Educators program, which provides teachers and their students with prioritized use of IBM quantum systems via the cloud, available to K-12 schools through Q2Work.
“It's one of these situations where the interests of the industry align with what I consider to be good for the world. So good for the world, I would consider it to be everyone is equipped and ready to do quantum computing and has access to quantum computers. The interest of the industry would be to see more people exploring the field and coming up with applications for quantum computing,” Asfaw said. “Both of them are aligned here, and we have a pretty good opportunity to make sure that we build this nascent technology from the ground up while being inclusive to everyone.”
Beyond Q-12 and Q2Work, NSF, IBM and other major science players are also supporting some historically Black colleges and universities to expand student’s exposure and access to quantum opportunities, and embarking on other pursuits to meet this national initiative.
“Imagine this fast train that is zooming through the country—this is a quantum train. Everyone who wants a ticket should be able to get a ticket on this train to benefit from this revolution,” NSF’s Durakiewicz said. “And inclusion here, it's not an obligation, it is an opportunity to do the right thing. If we fail in broadening participation in quantum, we will fail in quantum—period. We cannot afford that.”