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The NRF was established through the National Research Foundation Act (Act No 23 of 1998), following a system-wide review conducted for the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST). The new entity incorporated the functions of the research funding agencies that were previously servicing various sections of the research community, namely the former Centre for Science Development (CSD) of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the former Foundation for Research Development (FRD) that included several National Research Facilities.

As an entity of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the NRF promotes and supports research through funding, human resource development and the provision of National Research Facilities in all fields of natural and social sciences, humanities and technology. The NRF provides services to the research community especially at Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and Science Councils, with a view to promote high-level human capital development. The NRF aims to uphold excellence in all its investments in knowledge, people and infrastructure.