Access to clean water is a grand challenge in the 21st century. Water safety testing for pathogens currently depends on surrogate measures such as fecal indicator bacteria (e.g., E. coli). Metagenomics concerns high-throughput, culture-independent, unbiased shotgun sequencing of DNA from environmental samples that might transform water safety by detecting waterborne pathogens directly instead of their surrogates. Yet emerging innovations such as metagenomics are often fiercely contested. Innovations are subject to shaping/construction not only by technology but also social systems/values in which they are embedded, such as experts' attitudes towards new scientific evidence. We conducted a classic three-round Delphi survey, comprised of 107 questions. A multidisciplinary expert panel (n = 24) representing the continuum of discovery scientists and policymakers evaluated the emergence of metagenomics tests. To the best of our knowledge, we report here the first Delphi foresight study of experts' attitudes on (1) the top 10 priority evidentiary criteria for adoption of metagenomics tests for water safety, (2) the specific issues critical to governance of metagenomics innovation trajectory where there is consensus or dissensus among experts, (3) the anticipated time lapse from discovery to practice of metagenomics tests, and (4) the role and timing of public engagement in development of metagenomics tests. The ability of a test to distinguish between harmful and benign waterborne organisms, analytical/clinical sensitivity, and reproducibility were the top three evidentiary criteria for adoption of metagenomics. Experts agree that metagenomic testing will provide novel information but there is dissensus on whether metagenomics will replace the current water safety testing methods or impact the public health end points (e.g., reduction in boil water advisories). Interestingly, experts view the publics relevant in a "downstream capacity" for adoption of metagenomics rather than a co-productionist role at the "upstream" scientific design stage of metagenomics tests. In summary, these findings offer strategic foresight to govern metagenomics innovations symmetrically: by identifying areas where acceleration (e.g., consensus areas) and deceleration/reconsideration (e.g., dissensus areas) of the innovation trajectory might be warranted. Additionally, we show how scientific evidence is subject to potential social construction by experts' value systems and the need for greater upstream public engagement on metagenomics innovations. © 2015 Birko et al.
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S. Birko, Dove, E. S., and Özdemir, V., “A Delphi technology foresight study: Mapping social construction of scientific evidence on metagenomics tests for water safety”, PLoS ONE, vol. 10, 2015.