Watershed Metagenomics Project Update
 
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RIPPLES OF CHANGE: METAGENOMICS TO IMPROVE WATERSHED HEALTH

Reporting Back On the Project 

Thank you for your tremendous support of the Watershed Metagenomics project over the past three years. We hope you enjoyed reading our introductory project description sent last month.  This update shares some of the major findings related to the project from a GE3LS perspective (Genomics and its Ethical, Environmental, Economic, Legal and Social Aspects).  Please feel free to share it with your colleagues who may be interested. Also, check out our new
infographic on the subject.
 
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Sincerely,
Dr. Judy Isaac-Renton, Dr. Patrick Tang and Dr. Natalie Prystajecky

Brief Overview

GE3LS – An Accelerator for Scientific Innovation
Scientific progress is founded on understanding and anticipating the larger impacts of innovation. This is certainly true in the realm of water quality, where new innovations often face biological, technical, societal, political and legal challenges. One of our project aims is to facilitate the development and responsible uptake of new molecular tests through an iterative GE3LS-based consultation process engaging a wide range of stakeholders, from scientists to watershed managers to farming communities and other publics.  Collectively, the GE3LS team has developed anticipatory insights for novel water quality tests, and has strived to understand the interests of knowledge generators, end-users, and public health practitioners to aid in design and application of metagenomics-based water quality tests in the future. 
 
The GE3LS Team: A Multidisciplinary Team Working Towards Anticipatory Governance
The GE3LS team spans Canada, bringing together expertise in law, governance, political science, communications, stakeholder engagement and policy development.  This work is being conducted within an anticipatory governance framework. Anticipatory governance is a new approach for managing and responding to the uncertainties posed by future innovations (Figure 1, below). Notably, anticipatory governance, as a policy development framework, builds capacity for multiple possible future scenarios in which metagenomics tests for water safety may emerge.

The GE3LS East team, based at McGill University and the Centre of Genomics and Policy, is comprised of Dr. Bartha Knoppers, Dr. Yann Joly, Dr. Vural Özdemir, Ida Ngueng Feze Esq., Stanislav Birko and Edward S. Dove. The McGill GE3LS team contributed to mapping the legal context (regulatory requirements and legal determination  of contamination source) for future water quality tests. For anticipatory governance framework development, the GE3LS research also used a Delphi survey to examine the extent to which consensus exists among applied genomics scientists and policymakers regarding the transition of candidate metagenomics-derived water quality markers to practice (e.g., water and ecosystem health assessment), thus building towards an anticipatory governance framework.

The GE3LS West team, based at the University of British Columbia and Providence Health Care (PHC) has focused on communications, stakeholder perspectives, and water governance. 
The communications/stakeholder perspectives team is composed of Dr. Natalie Henrich (Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcomes Science at PHC) and Dr. Bev Holmes (Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research). Their work focuses on understanding the issues and opinions of policy makers, watershed and laboratory managers, members of the public, and other
potentially impacted stakeholders to facilitate uptake of these novel tests. The team also assessed current communication strategies of public health officials to provide suggestions on how to align with the public’s information needs. 

The water governance team is composed of Drs. Karen Bakker (Geography) and Leila Harris (Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability) who together co-Direct UBC’s Program on Water Governance (PoWG), and Gemma Dunn, a Research Associate at PoWG. This team studied the governance environment (including and extending beyond legislation) into which such a test would be introduced. PoWG’s research focused on analyzing current microbial risk assessment, management and communication practices by interviewing practitioners in BC and Ontario. This research has identified key factors that enable and constrain the operationalization of microbial risk management and the readiness for integrating novel methods.
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Figure 1. Anticipatory approach to governing metagenomics innovations 

(Adapted from Özdemir V, Faraj SA, Knoppers BM. Steering vaccinomics innovations with anticipatory governance and participatory foresight. OMICS 2011; 15(9):637-646)
FEATURE RESEARCH UPDATE

Development of a policy brief from GE3LS work:

With inputs from the results generated by the three GE3LS teams, we have developed a policy brief.  Here we outline some of the major findings and recommendations related to the project from a GE3LS perspective, highlighting several key insights and references that may be of interest to policymakers and stakeholder communities. The full policy brief is forthcoming and will be available on our website (www.watersheddiscovery.ca).
 
Key Insights from GE3LS work: Our work highlights an anticipatory governance approach - working to identify key issues from a diverse group of stakeholders, publics, and likely future users of novel water-quality tests, to inform the ongoing research and test development at all stages of the process.
 
In sum, we find:
 
1. Wide uptake of new water quality tests may be hindered by the fragmented Canadian regulatory approval system and governance contexts, particularly as there are differing scientific and regulatory requirements from province to province. We find it instructive to look at other cases, such as national approval processes in the U.S., to consider whether increased integration of tools, data, and regulations could enable the uptake of novel water quality tests, or linked to this, usage of available microbial risk assessment tools. 

2. Public perception of water quality is generally very high, with a strong sense that water quality is good (based on work in several British Columbian communities).  However, on the flip side, there appears to be low public interest in water quality, leading to certain barriers for broad public engagement. There also appears to be limited knowledge and understanding among the general public about what constitutes poor water quality and associated risks (particularly regarding microbes). 

3. Scientists and policymakers express the importance of the utility of a metagenomics tests for water safety so they directly impact public health related endpoints such as reducing the boil water advisories and the population health at large. This seems to be a priority evidence before analytical and clinical validity of metagenomics tests. Additionally, scientists and policymakers appear to favour a role for publics engagement primarily in the adoption of metagenomics-based tests rather than in their design earlier in the innovation trajectory. 

4. There is a need for scientific tools capable of accurately identifying microbial pollution sources, and overcoming current technical and legal challenges associated with generating reliable (environmental) forensic evidence (i.e., for water quality monitoring, remedial measures, litigation, etc.). 
 
5. Incorporation of a new test into microbial risk assessment practices may be challenging, given the limited application, evaluation and engagement with microbial risk governance in the water realm (in Canada) at present. For successful adoption, test developers and provincial/federal policies should take into account financial, capacity and related challenges that could support microbial risk assessment along the source-to-tap framework. 

6. The potential of novel water quality testing for ecosystem dimensions is an exciting element of this work, but poses its own distinct challenges given current barriers in the implementation of a source-to-tap framework.  Institutional mandates, regulatory instruments, communication processes, financial and staffing capacities are viewed as key constraints to effective water governance related to microbial risk. All of these concerns need to be more adequately addressed to effectively implement source water protection and other elements of a source-to-tap framework.

​These insights will certainly help towards engaging with a broad range of publics on the metagenomics innovation trajectory, including both designers (e.g., scientists) and users of metagenomics tests to better understand their benefits and alternative ways in which they can influence outcomes for water safety, as well as for ecosystem and public health.
Want to know more?  

- Subscribe  here and stay tuned for our next update!

- Check out our website www.watersheddiscovery.ca

- ​Please see our list of publications and reports: water communicators and farming interviews
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