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The response to the government's announcement that it would aim to double the number of international students in Canada emphasizes the quantity: a goal of nearly half-a-million students from abroad on our post-secondary campuses by 2022. The higher tuition fees they pay, and the money they spend when they get here, creates jobs and fuels the economy. But to make the most of this policy goal, we need to consider not just how many, but what calibre of foreign students we are aiming for. Indeed, here is a chance to attract a tremendous influx of the world's brightest, most energetic minds and all the advantages to the country that accompany their talent.

The benefits of this ambitious target go beyond a simple injection of dollars into the economy, but only if we seek not just another 250,000 new bodies, but a quarter-million of the world's best minds. That is because it is those people, who, as graduate students, will do the research that results in new technologies, new medical breakthroughs, new insights and products that will translate into real, long-term economic growth, competitiveness and wellbeing for the country. If they stay, they will be the researchers, the business leaders and the innovators who continue this work; if they leave they will be the vital conduits for international collaboration that make a knowledge economy hum and the ambassadors between their home countries and Canada that will sustain the flow of international students.

So the question now is how to seize this opportunity. Bolstering Canada's research brand internationally will help us get there. A 2012 Ipsos Reid report – commissioned by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada to test how well their efforts to promote Canada as a study destination were working in Brazil, China and India – found that "[W]hile participants believe that Canada as a developed country must have an adequate level of education, there is no perception of a Canadian education advantage compared to others." In part, it is a question of marketing; what will we sell to these exceptional international students, as well as their parents, in the face of intense competition from other countries?

When it comes to high-quality graduate students especially, having a great product to sell is often more crucial than the sales pitch. Canada's number one product is, without a doubt, the world-class research environment we have to offer, with its outstanding professors and its exceptional research facilities where these highly driven, discerning and sophisticated minds will have the best chance of realizing their post-graduate ambitions.

Take for example Caitlin Schneider, who, in 2012, was a top graduate student in electrical and computer engineering with offers from Johns Hopkins University among others. She chose The University of British Columbia, in large part because it meant access to a top-notch surgical robot that she is now using to develop techniques to improve the outcomes of kidney surgeries. We know that world-class universities with state-of-the-art research facilities not only keep Canadian researchers like Ms. Schneider in Canada, but also attract the best and brightest from abroad. When the Canada Foundation for Innovation measured this in 2012-13, it found that of the researchers that were recruited from outside of Canada, 86 per cent identified access to world-class infrastructure as an important reason for coming.

Luckily, the time is ripe in Canada. The research facilities and talent at our universities, colleges and research hospitals are world-class and when it comes to cutting-edge labs we are no longer playing catch up – we are leading the pack. We have bragging rights at institutions across the country: the University of Victoria has the world's most powerful microscope; Waterloo's Perimeter Institute is among the globe's foremost centres for theoretical physics; and Dalhousie University's Ocean Tracking Network attracts the best ocean scientists internationally. There is little doubt that we have what it takes to compete for the best and now more than ever we have the government's buy-in to make it happen. If we set our sights high, and leverage the excellent research capabilities we have worked so hard to build, this effort will prove to be worthwhile for the long-term.

Gilles G. Patry is president and CEO, Canada Foundation for Innovation, and former president and vice-chancellor, University of Ottawa.