Quantum computing scientist Michelle Simmons says Australia’s cultural ‘levelling mechanism’ is holding back our science

As a quantum physicist working in a very hot field, I am often asked to paint a picture of the longer-term business and commercial applications and benefits of my work.

I’ve always tried to do this responsibly, rigorously proving our milestones and results while being very careful about how our results are reported and how we talk about their potential.

It was therefore sad to read something scant comments in this newspaper from a competitor last week who felt the need to insinuate that the result was hype.

Professor Michelle Simmons

Silicon Quantum Computing founder Professor Michelle Simmons says Australian scientists need to work better together and support each other.

But what was just sad for me should be considered troubling to the community at large.

The current quantum landscape in Australia is driven by competition.

Though some like to deny it, we’ve been put in a race – both against other nations and against each other. This competition pushes all involved to deliver cutting edge research.

But here in Australia the competitive mentality can also work against us.

A global race

In the global race to build a commercial quantum device, countries with complex industrial systems have some inherent advantages.

Those with research communities closely aligned with local industries are advancing rapidly, as are those with robust and advanced technology layers spanning software and various forms of advanced manufacturing.

In such places, new ventures easily arise to compete in testing, iterating, and challenging the status quo.

Peripheral industries evolve naturally to produce the highly specialized equipment researchers need to build exotic new devices. Specialized consultants are also establishing themselves as the scientific translators who help companies understand ‘user paths’.

Australia does not yet have this in a comprehensive way. Our economy has many technological advances, but it still lacks the broad expertise, especially in high-tech manufacturing, that is available in some other countries.

The current government understands this all too well. To be ministers have argued strongly for a renewed focus on building sovereign production capacity and for increasing the number of world-class researchers in the country.

People have understandably become wary of those who over-promise about their ability to deliver commercial applications based on untested research.

But the research community itself has not yet understood what this means in practice, and there are serious cultural and structural stumbling blocks that we must address if we are to compete globally.

Structurally, our best strategy is to build on technologies that have given us global leadership until the Australian economy has a really broad technical capability.

Only from our strengths can we strive to develop a broader expansion of technical and production capabilities over time. That’s a message that not everyone likes to hear.

At the same time, culturally, we need to figure out how to better stand together and support each other — and resist the reflex (not uncommon in the academic tradition) to denigrate our peers’ successes, regardless of their merit.

I had the great honor to be named Australian of the Year in 2018† It is an experience I will always be grateful for. I have felt first hand how brilliantly the Australians are succeeding.

But I’ve also witnessed the double-edged sword that this can be. There really is a “levelling mechanism” built into Australian culture – and if we give in to it, it will hold us back.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that we all have to agree, as third-party surveillance is vital.

In the field of global quantum science, the past 12 months have seen cases of peer-reviewed papers being retracted and short seller reports leading to ripples of uncertainty.

People have understandably become wary of those who over-promise about their ability to deliver commercial applications based on untested and baseless research.

But there’s a difference between legitimate scrutiny or serious discussion of substantive issues, and scoring minor points based on allusions.

Completing the first atomic-scale integrated circuit is a huge technical milestone for my team, for my company and for the country. But it’s also a catalyst for all of us to take a broader look at the tech ecosystem and the cultural change we need to ensure that Australia’s quantum companies can succeed.

At some level, we all have to be willing to stand together and share each other’s successes.

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