SA's contribution to the world's scientific research has reached its highest level to date, according to recent analysis.

Research and development (R&D) is a key driver of economic growth, competitiveness and job creation, and is the foundation for a knowledge economy.

Despite academic publication rising steeply from the year 2004 to 7468 publications in 2010 - pushing SA into 33rd spot in the world - the country trailed far behind its Brics partners Brazil (31274), Russia (26374), India (40711) and China (124822).

This is according to Science in SA: the dawn of a Renaissance, an article in the South African Journal of Science this month.

R&D expenditure in 2009-10 was 0,93% of gross domestic product, according to the Department of Science and Technology.

The government wants to raise this to 1,5% in 2014.

"Provided a portion of this increase goes to universities - which produce 85% of new knowledge - this increase is sustainable," author Anastassios Pouris said yesterday.

He said the main driver for the increase was funding by the Department of Higher Education to incentivise publication.

"Universities receive approximately R120000 for each article a staff member produces. Universities, in turn, provide incentives to . staff to improve their publication profile," Prof Pouris wrote.

The increase in R&D expenditure, if realised, meant "SA may be on the verge of a scientific renaissance", he said.

Michael Kahn, professor extraordinaire at Stellenbosch University, was sceptical. "Eventually, the increase in publication output is going to stop going up because the number of people in the system is the same. It's a bit premature to call it a renaissance. We're holding our own."

Prof Pouris agreed SA needed to grow its researcher base at universities if it wanted to sustain the increase in publication.

"Countries like China and Korea were well behind SA in publication numbers. But by putting universities at the centre of their system, they have become technology superpowers," he said.

wilds@bdfm.co.za