As Asian economies ramp up R&D, and high-tech companies relocate to China and India, Asian science looks unstoppable — apart from one last hurdle: a shortage of local talent. A radical change in Asia's education culture is needed to foster the human capital necessary for innovation-led economies.

The exam-centric Asian education system has created a workforce more adept at imitation than innovation (W. Lim Science 327, 1576–1577; 2010). Asia-based scientists without Western collaborators therefore seldom publish in highly cited, indexed journals. No Asian nation is represented among the top 20, ranked by the average number of citations per published paper.

A critical mass of creative researchers is required to sustain research and attract talent. For decades, Asian countries have sent their best to the West for training in science and technology. Those who return are valued for their initiative and creativity, and currently form the bulk of research leaders and productive scientists. But many émigrés opt to remain overseas, where creative potential is higher. Except for most Japanese laureates, virtually all science Nobel Prize-winners of Asian descent did their groundbreaking work in the West, and remained there. Countries that lure prominent foreign scientists find their impact on local researchers as unpredictable as the length of time they are willing to stay.

Asian governments recognize that the solution is to develop homegrown scientific talent. They have been adapting their national school curricula to fit new global realities. China and Japan, for example, have been moving away from a centralized curriculum.

Suitable science students should join a stream that feeds into the best universities. They should mainly be taught using problem-based and enquiry-based learning, which will develop their powers of investigation and critical thinking. Grades should depend on active contribution during group-based learning sessions, to change the focus from competitive examination to collaborative learning.

Only when these reforms are in place will Asian schools be able to progress beyond content knowledge to nurture the innovative thinking necessary to sustain the rise of Asian science.