Local firms were the big spenders when it came to investment in research and development last year.

They invested $4.4 billion compared with public sector expenditure of $2.8 billion, but that was still down 4.6 per cent from 2011.

The Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) attributed this to short-term fluctuation as R&D spending was dependent "on macro-economic conditions as well as individual companies' investment decisions".

Businesses spent about $2.3 billion of their R&D dollars on electronics, infocomms and media research, making it the biggest category but the level of investment was still down 17.8 per cent from that of 2011.

Their spending on the chemicals group, which comprises material sciences, chemical engineering and chemical sciences, rose by a hefty 85.7 per cent to $664.5 million.

They spent $1.4 billion in applied research last year, the same level in 2011, found an annual survey on R&D conducted by A*Star, which polled about 1,000 organisations.

Businesses put in nearly $180 million more on hiring researchers and scientists, buying new equipment and other research activities last year, bringing their spending in this area to $1.3 billion, 16 per cent higher than in 2011.

Large local firms such as ST Electronics, Keppel Corporation and the telcos were the shining stars, spending 30 per cent, or $753 million, more last year, up from $573 million in 2011.

A*Star managing director Raj Thampuran said in the survey report yesterday that the increased spending by local companies reflects their propensity to use R&D "to improve their business".

It also raises the local innovation capacity in Singapore, he added.

Public sector spending, including that by research institutions, universities and hospitals, rose by just 0.3 per cent to $2.83 billion last year.

Biomedical sciences received the biggest public R&D investments, notching up a 5.6 per cent raise to $987.1 million. Precision and transport engineering grew a hefty 24 per cent to $360.7 million.

Overall, Singapore's gross expenditure on R&D dipped 2.7 per cent, from $7.4 billion in 2011 to $7.2 billion last year.

However, this expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product was largely unchanged, from 2.2 per cent to 2.1 per cent.

This is comparable with research-intensive places such as Denmark (3.1 per cent), Taiwan (3 per cent) and the United States (2.8 per cent), said A*Star.