From Business to Government to Academia, Paul Dabbar Sees the Future in Quantum
Paul Dabbar is no stranger to Columbia. After serving as a nuclear submarine officer with the U.S. Navy, which took him from Hawaii to the North Pole, he completed his MBA at Columbia Business School. He spent some time doing investing and commodities trading for the energy sector, before taking on the role of under secretary of energy for science at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in 2017.
Last summer, he returned to Columbia as a distinguished visiting fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
During his time at the DOE, Dabbar ran the country’s programs around many science and energy areas, including fusion, high energy physics, and supercomputing, oversaw the nation’s 17 national laboratories, including Columbia’s neighbor in Brookhaven, and spearheaded the National Quantum Initiative (NQI). Dabbar explained what went into this new national effort and what’s so exciting about quantum science.
Q. What is the National Quantum Initiative?
A. The National Quantum Initiative is legislation passed in 2018 that is injecting an additional $1.25 billion into the development of quantum science and technology for the economic and national security of the United States.
The DOE is the lead agency and distributes half of the funding, with the rest split between the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Prior to the NQI, these agencies funded quantum research, but the level of support was not as large. Now, they are focused on large, concerted efforts.
The NSF supports universities and academic programs, NIST has convened the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, and DOE has established five major quantum research centers, which include national laboratories, universities like Columbia, and, for the first time, private industry, including companies like IBM, Rigetti, Applied Materials, and Goldman Sachs.
Q. Why the focus on quantum now?
A. When I came to the DOE, there was a group of researchers with the National Photonics Initiative who were advocating for a larger focus on quantum science and technology. I observed that quantum had reached a point where it was close to creating things that could be useful, if given the push to really start germinating.
The pointy end of the spear was quantum computing. IBM had been working on quantum computing since the ’80s, and then about a decade ago, Google hired the entire quantum computing team at U.C. Santa Barbara. These behemoths had these ongoing efforts and believed that the technology was closer on the horizon than most people realized. Researchers at the national labs confirmed that, and it was clear that quantum computing was really coming to the forefront of public and private efforts. We wanted to help convince Congress to start investing too.
Q. How did you convince Congress this was a good idea?
By framing quantum mechanics as already part of our day-to-day lives, we show that these theories have already been turned into applied technologies, and there’s just another wave coming.
A. I worked with the House Science Committee to draft the NQI legislation and then testified in front of the Senate. We eventually received unanimous support and full funding.
Quantum can be an esoteric topic, but it really is pervasive. Computers; medical devices, like MRIs; talking via Zoom and any other visual mediums; all have roots in quantum mechanics. From here, we need to ask: what’s next?
You have to convince politicians that these things are not only important but that they are also possible. By framing quantum mechanics as already part of our day-to-day lives, we show that these theories have already been turned into applied technologies, and there’s just another wave coming.
Q. What can you share about navigating the politics of science?
A. There is a constituency in Congress that loves pure science. It tends to be members of Congress who have national labs or major universities in their district or state, but that’s not enough to get optimal funding.
One way to build a broader constituency is to appeal to the congressional members concerned with American competitiveness in the technologies and industries of the future. The U.S. already has a great track record of supporting emerging industries—like biotech and the internet, for example—with federal investment. Telling those stories can garner support beyond the “I like science for science” crowd.
Then there are issues of national security—there's another layer in Washington that cares about investing in the future for those reasons. The Manhattan Project, which started at Columbia, is of course the most prominent example of the complicated but important interaction between the science community and the national security community.
Q. What do you hope the NQI achieves?
A. The big three applications are quantum computers, quantum networks, and quantum sensors, and I hope we see advances in the performance of those devices.
For quantum computers, for example, performance relates to the number of qubits, their error rates, and how fast they can process information. For networks, we’re concerned with data rates, entanglement rates, and distance. You can build quantum networking at close scales, like within meters in a lab room, but it’s going to be much harder to entangle qubits over hundreds of miles.
The NQI certainly supports pure science in those areas, but it’s also about taking the science beyond that. It’s really about moving things toward concrete applications and potential commercialization.
Q. What are the hurdles to getting there?
A. Technological performance still needs to be improved, but it’s also about finding the right first use cases. Lots of companies are excited about using quantum technologies, but they often don’t have a full view of the state of the technology.
On the flip side, there’s still a very academic mindset among many researchers. Their instinct is to focus on science development and improving one tiny piece of the puzzle. You need to bridge the gap between that and making something with commercial applications.
Q. So how do things ultimately move forward?
A. It’s important to think about the first buyer, which is a role the government can play if done properly. The government generally has a higher threshold for first-of-a-kind technologies than companies. For example, the first nuclear reactors weren’t built by ConEdison: they were built by the Atomic Energy Commission. The next-generation high-end computer chips are always purchased first by the DOE for their supercomputers.
When you think about quantum computers, I think the first user will be a DOE national lab. I pushed for the DOE to build out the first quantum networks, but that effort was just jumped by the Department of Defense, which recently announced plans to build the first metro-scale quantum network between government facilities around DC.
The DOE will likely bid out an additional three to five metropolitan networks. The most obvious to me are the Bay Area, Chicago, and New York—if metro New York organizes itself well, it should be able to put together a competitive proposal.
Q. What’s the most exciting use case you hope comes to fruition?
A. Quantum sensing for biology, which would bring together quantum sensing, quantum computer, and quantum networks.
Think about cancer. MRI machines, in part invented at Columbia, are great, but their images are still, for a lack of a better term, blobs. They can only detect tumors once they reach a certain size, and you often still need a biopsy to confirm.
Quantum sensors could one day characterize conditions at the cellular level, across the entire body, and over time. You could catch the earliest moment of metastasizing cancer and watch those cells move and grow.
There’s no way current supercomputers could process that amount of data, so quantum sensors will likely need quantum computers. And to move the data around, you’ll need a quantum network. That would revolutionize medicine.