Monday, August 1, 2022

Analysis of NSPM-33: Cybersecurity Requirements for Federally Funded Research Organizations

By: Anurag Shankar and Scott Russell

This blog post provides research organizations a summary of the National Security Presidential Memorandum on United States Government-Supported Research and Development National Security Policy” (NSPM-33) and the recent Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) / National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) guidance, along with analysis of the requirements. 


In January 2021, then President Trump issued a directive “National Security Presidential Memorandum on United States Government-Supported Research and Development National Security Policy” (NSPM-33) to all federal agencies to: 1) standardize disclosure requirements and 2) mandate a research security program for all institutions receiving a total of $50 million or more in federally-funded research. In January 2022, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) released further guidance on these requirements, including details on four elements specified in NSPM-33: cybersecurity, foreign travel security, research security training, and export control training. The cybersecurity guidance identifies 14 controls that it recommends as requirements for federal agencies to flow down to organizations receiving federal research funding. Twelve of these controls are included in the 17 “basic hygiene” controls specified by CMMC Level 1 and the 15 “minimum security controls” specified by FAR 52.204-21, “Basic Safeguarding of Covered Contractor Information Systems.” The rest are NSPM-33 specific, addressing training and ransomware/data integrity.

The OSTP guidance also includes a number of additional recommendations for federal agencies to flow down to research organizations, summarized below:

  1. Documentation: Research organizations should be required to document their research security program and provide this documentation within 30 days of a request from a research agency that is funding an award or considering an application for award funding.

  2. Certification: Research organizations should be required to provide certification of compliance with the research security program requirement. OSTP, in consultation with the NSTC Subcommittee on Research Security and OMB, plans to develop a single certification standard and process that will apply across all research agencies.

  3. Timeline: Research organizations should establish a research security program as soon as possible, but given one year from the date of issuance of the formal requirement to comply. Organizations that become subject to the requirement in subsequent years are supposed to be similarly provided one additional year to comply.

  4. Assistance: The Federal Government should provide technical assistance to support development of training content and program guidelines, tools, and best practices for research organizations to incorporate at their discretion. Agencies represented on the National Counterintelligence Task Force, in conjunction with the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, should jointly develop content that research organizations can leverage to meet requirements for research security programs and training. The Federal Government should consider supporting the formation of a community consortium to develop and maintain research security program information and implementation resources for research organizations, to include resources suitable for use within research security programs. The development of program content should be a collaborative effort between the government and organizations.

  5. Discretion: Research organizations should be provided flexibility to structure the organization’s research security program to best serve its particular needs, and to leverage existing programs and activities where relevant, provided that the organization implements all required program components. Research organizations should be given flexibility in how they choose to integrate research security requirements into existing programs, such as existing cybersecurity programs. Research organizations should be strongly encouraged to integrate some or all elements into a coherent research security program, where applicable and feasible.

  6. Funding agencies should consider integrating the research security program requirement into the Compliance Supplement’s Research and Development Cluster audit guidance as part of the single audit of Federal grant and assistance programs (2 C.F.R. Part 200, Appendix XI).


The primary questions raised by NSPM-33 and the NTSC/OSTP guidance are 1) How will these requirements be flowed down to research organizations; 2) To what extent will funding agencies follow the guidance put forth by the NTSC; and 3) What is the scope of the requirements? 

Regarding the first question, NSPM-33 only directly impacts federal funding agencies (e.g., NSF, DOE): the NSPM does not impose any requirements directly on research institutions. Instead, it instructs federal funding agencies to impose these requirements on research institutions receiving federal research funding. While the NTSC/OSTP guidance specifies January 2023 as the deadline for eligible institutions to comply, it does not specify how the requirements should be imposed. Moreover, the provision of NSPM-33 that specifically mentions cybersecurity is only intended to apply to research institutions receiving over $50 million in federal research funding, without clarifying how these institutions should be identified.

Practically speaking, the funding agencies may impose these requirements on all *new* grants. So although existing grants are technically unaffected, research institutions that wish to continue to get funding will be forced to implement the requirements regardless. 

Moreover, it is also unclear to what extent federal funding agencies are bound by the NTSC guidance. NSPM-33 only instructs OSTP to “promulgate guidelines for research institutions to mitigate risks to research security and integrity”: it is not empowered to dictate what requirements federal funding agencies impose. Indeed, neither OSTP nor NTSC were mentioned in the subsection referencing research security programs and cybersecurity.

Scope is another issue. The guidance does not clarify whether the security program requirements apply only to researchers receiving federal funding or every researcher within the organization. It specifies controls for programs to implement but does not explicitly state if every system used by researchers (e.g, their workstations) is in scope or institutional systems only. Since this has financial repercussions, clarity is needed on what the requirements cover.

A research security program clearly requires controls to secure projects. However, prescribing a set of controls which research systems must implement can be problematic, as research systems have unique needs that may not function using traditional controls (instead requiring alternate controls to achieve their mission.) Moreover, the focus on system-centric controls is not well suited for securing research workflows, which require more than technical controls alone. The uniqueness of research systems (telescopes, sensors, microscopes, etc.) requires different approaches than controls designed to secure “systems.” For example, the Trusted CI Framework is a more appropriate fit for research programs. It includes controls, but provides the institution flexibility in choosing a baseline control set that is tailored to the institution’s mission. Additionally, this baseline control set is supplemented with additional and alternate controls that are particularly important in the research context, as research infrastructure often requires specialized protections. Securing research ultimately requires flexibility.

Applying the same level of security to all research is also unwise. How research is protected is currently scoped to data by sensitivity and regulatory requirements. This is done for a reason, namely to apply security proportionally to risk to contain cost. Expanding it indiscriminately will be wasteful and unnecessary. For instance, public data does not need the same level of security as patient data.

The guidance asks agencies to allow flexibility on which program components institutions choose to implement but also directs them to “strongly encourage” choosing them all. With a documentation submission requirement, it is unclear how the program will be judged and what the impact of a “less than perfect choice” might be (e.g., of not having all of the controls in place).

The certification requirement also is likely to present challenges. As the CMMC rollout shows, designing a certification process for compliance at this scale is extremely challenging. And whereas CMMC is limited in scope, NSPM-33 is potentially much broader. With CMMC compliance, most organizations can design isolated environments for controlled data CUI to limit scope, certifying compliance for research will be much more challenging, given the variety and complexity of research infrastructure.