In the James Bond films, “Q” was the agent in charge of the British intelligence service’s secretive research division where scientists invented spy gadgets, such as cyanide cigarettes and ski pole guns. Jason Matheny is something of a real-life, modern-day Q — a scientist to the spies. But instead of developing poison fountain pens, his purview covers complex research topics including quantum computing, biological weapons, nuclear proliferation, and neuroscience.
Matheny is the head of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a U.S. government agency formed in 2006 that funds the development of predictive technology in order to ward off impending global crises and conflicts, as well as highlight potential opportunities where the United States could gain an intelligence edge on its competitors. And unlike DARPA, the Defense Department organization after which it was modeled, IARPA focuses on the needs of intelligence officers and analysts, not just service members.
By the time Matheny arrived at IARPA in August 2015, the agency had evolved into a robust operation, producing important research on biometrics and geopolitical forecasting. In a statement to Congress last year, James Clapper, then-director of national intelligence, praised the organization for yielding “unique intelligence support to military operations” and said he believed IARPA had “the potential to provide the United States with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries.”
Since the beginning of this year, however, the White House has seemed to turn its back on science. President Donald Trump has gone longer than any president in recent history without appointing a science advisor, and he has no apparent plans to reinstate the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology — a board that former President Barack Obama relied on heavily for advice on everything from cybersecurity to bioweapons.
Matheny and his team have stayed out of the political maelstrom, however. Under Matheny’s leadership, the agency is providing a crucial link between scientists and national security institutions, often aiming to solve the future problems intelligence agencies don’t have the time to focus on yet as real-time events, like North Korea’s nuclear posturing, keep them busy. According to Matheny, IARPA typically has up to 30 projects going on at any given time, and in 2017 IARPA jump-started several new research programs in biology and continued to support major long-term efforts including a project to reverse-engineer brain tissue to improve artificial intelligence and bring it closer to human intelligence, as well as a mission to combine human cognitive powers with computers to help the intelligence community forecast any major world event from the next terrorist attack to the outcome of an election. In late October, for example, IARPA announced it would fund a project called Odin to find new, and as-yet-undefined, ways to prevent potential criminals or terrorists from faking their identities to bypass biometric scanners.
“[Matheny] has an incredible understanding of the importance of linking fundamental research results to the practical needs and future desires of the intelligence community that he serves,” says Mark Lewis, the former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force and now the director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute — an office that provides research for the White House and other federal agencies.
Matheny’s circuitous career path to the U.S. government began in 2002 while conducting an academic public health project on the epidemiology of malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV in India. In the middle of the trip, news broke that scientists in New York had developed the very first polio virus from scratch — “mainly to demonstrate that it could be done,” explains Matheny, who has a background in biology — by cooking it up from raw chemicals (including mail-order DNA) in a lab.
The implications of the breakthrough alarmed Matheny, since it proved that people could now create deadly bioweapons, deliberately or by accident, with materials commonly found in a lab. “I started to increasingly worry that some of the public health risks that we would face in the future would be worse than ones we faced in the past,” he says. So he started advising the Pentagon about biological threats, rotating through various roles until arriving at IARPA to work for the intelligence community.
While Matheny’s work sounds futuristic, IARPA’s goal is to turn its research into concrete solutions that intelligence analysts and officers can use — and soon. One of the most pervasive criticisms of the intelligence community in the wake of 9/11 was that it failed to predict the tragedy despite warning signs from information the government had already collected. One of the concerns raised by the 9/11 Commission was that government agencies failed to share and analyze intelligence that could have anticipated a potential attack. In response, government agencies in subsequent years have sought to ensure that information is available across the intelligence community. But IARPA is going one step beyond that by looking at new ways to link humans and computers to accurately predict global events, whether coups or invasions, drawing on academic and even the public to help make predictions.
This core mission, Matheny says, is the most gratifying part of working at the “crowdsourced version of Q Branch” — getting to “see science translated into technologies that reduce risks, that save lives, that prevent catastrophic events.”
Jenna McLaughlin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.