The National Research Foundation Celebrates 25 Years of Research, Innovation, Impact and Partnerships

The National Research Foundation Celebrates 25 Years of Research, Innovation, Impact and Partnerships

This week, the National Research Foundation (NRF) celebrates a major milestone in its history as it commemorates its 25th anniversary. To reflect on its contribution to the science system, the NRF will hold a number of events during the 2024/25 financial year in honour of its quarter century of impact as South Africa’s premier science council.

The NRF commenced operations on 01 April 1999 as a statutory body mandated to promote and support research in South Africa, following the enactment of the National Research Foundation Act (Act No. 23 of 1998). The founding of the NRF was preceded by a nation-wide review of the research funding system, conducted by the then Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST). As a result, two key research funding agencies, namely, the Foundation for Research Development (FRD) and the Centre for Science Development (CSD), were merged to form the NRF.

The NRF CEO, Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, says, “The NRF stands proud as one of South Africa’s statutory bodies that have made significant impact to society. We continue to fulfil our mandate of ensuring that South Africa has the necessary human capital for careers in research, and the NRF supports the advancement of knowledge creation and innovation for national benefit and for humanity in general.”

Dr Nelwamondo adds, “Our 25th anniversary is a key milestone for the national science system. Ours is an institution that holds the hopes of so many across our public science and research institutions. From students to researchers, everyone looks forward to a stable and impactful NRF. We do not come short of meeting these expectations, and for that we are proud of our diligent employees and the Department of Science and Innovation for their unwavering support.”

The NRF’s 2022/23 Annual Report highlighted that the organisation’s governance achievements were maintained through unqualified audits and clean audit outcomes for a third consecutive year, an achievement that earned it applause from the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation. The Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA) found that the NRF management implemented good internal controls and further noted the NRF’s healthy going concern position and sound financial discipline. Additionally, no irregular, fruitless or wasteful expenditure was reported in the NRF’s audit outcomes.

Some key highlights that relate to NRF core deliverables include the following:

  •  99 700 postgraduate students have been supported since inception.
  •  15 200 researchers were funded since NRF was established.
  • The support for Black students (African, Coloured and Indian) has increased from 48% in 1999 to 84% in 2022, while the support for women has increased from 44% in 1999 to 59% in 2022.
  • The support for Black researchers (African, Coloured and Indian) has increased from 17% in 1999 to 58% in 2022, while the support for women has increased from 17% in 1999 to 50% in 2022.
  • The NRF, in collaboration with the then Department of Science and Technology (DST), launched the Centres of Excellence (CoEs) programme in 2004. These are physical or virtual centres of research which concentrate existing capacity and resources to enable researchers to collaborate across disciplines and institutions on long-term projects that are locally relevant and internationally competitive in order to enhance the pursuit of research excellence and capacity development. Examples of the CoEs include the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in HIV Prevention (CAPRISA), based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN); the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical Tuberculosis Research (CBTBR), co-hosted by the University of Cape Town, University of Stellenbosch (SU) and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits); the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology, hosted by SU; and the DSI-NRF National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS); jointly hosted by SU, Wits and UKZN.
  • To date, 275 Research Chairs under the auspices of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) have been awarded in various disciplines and research fields. Of these Chairs, 266 were awarded to 23 South African public universities and nine to science councils. The SARChI, established by the NRF and DSI in 2006, was designed to attract and retain excellence in research and innovation at South African public universities through the establishment of Research Chairs with a long-term investment trajectory of up to fifteen years.
  • As part of its objective to broaden research opportunities through the Research Chairs initiative, the NRF initiated international bilateral and trilateral Research Chairs. These are the SA-Namibia Chair in Astronomy; DSI-NRF-Swiss Bilateral Research Chair in Blockchain Technology; SA-SWISS Bilateral Chair in Global Environmental Health; SA-UK Bilateral Chair in Political Theory; and SA-UK Bilateral Chair in Food Security. Among their objectives, these international Research Chairs promote international exchange and cooperation between local researchers and their counterparts in partnering countries, as well as strengthen research and innovation capacities at the highest scientific level.
  • The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project, which commenced in early 2000, has progressed steadily under the banner of the NRF with the completion of the Karoo Array Telescope (KAT-7) in 2011 as a technology demonstrator for South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array, subsequently awarded to South Africa in 2012. This was followed by the construction of the MeerKAT radio telescope, comprised of 64 antenna, in 2018. The telescope, located in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope and will be integrated into the SKA Organisation. The Construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Mid-Frequency Telescope (SKA-MID 1) commenced in December 2022.
  • The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), known as Africa’s Giant Eye on the Universe, was built locally, and commissioned in 2011, at a fraction of the cost of similar telescopes. It is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and is situated at the South African Astronomical Observatory (NRF-SAAO) field station near the town of Sutherland, Northern Cape.
  • The NRF joined hands with the DSI and partners, which included the Oliver & Adelaide Tambo Foundation and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), to launch the O.R. Tambo Africa Research Chairs Initiative (ORTARChI) in 2020. The ORTARChI was established to contribute to the expansion of research and innovation capacities in and for Africa; to contribute to Africa’s global research competitiveness while responding to the continent’s socio-economic needs; and to contribute to Africa’s career pathways for young and mid-career researchers, with a strong research, innovation and human capital development output trajectory. Since its launch, ten ORTARChI Chairs have been awarded across seven countries, namely Botswana, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
  • Last year, the NRF completed and commissioned the South African Isotopes Facility (SAIF), located at the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences (NRF-iThemba LABS) in Cape Town. SAIF supplies radioisotopes to nuclear medicine clinics for cancer diagnosis and treatment. It also provides significant opportunities for ongoing research.

Concludes Dr Nelwamondo, “The NRF will continue to play its part in the national drive to transform the science sector. As part of the NRF’s Vision 2030, we are implementing programmes designed to contribute directly to the National Development Plan to increase the percentage of Doctoral (PhD) qualified staff in the higher education sector to over 75% by 2030 through directed programmes such as the Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP), Thuthuka, and the New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP).”

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