~Written by Theresa Majeski (Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Program science is a relatively new term being used to describe the application of scientific knowledge to improve the design, implementation, and evaluation of programs. Evidence-based interventions are becoming more mainstream in public health but there is still work to do to ensure that public health concepts work the way we hope they will. That’s where program science can help.
Program science extends beyond looking at the implementation of a program, which is the logistics of developing and implementing evidence-based interventions, and focuses on the bigger picture. Program science looks at entire programs, which may include more than one intervention, for a particular population in a specific context. For example, program science may look at efforts to decrease HIV rates in youth of color in a specific borough of NYC. There are probably many interventions working on this issue, targeting different populations of youth via different methods. Program science would look at how all of these interventions work together to achieve the overarching goal of decreasing HIV rates in youth of color in that specific borough of NYC.
Program science focuses on questions like, "Who should be targeted and for how long?," "What is the best combination of interventions to achieve our goal?." " How can we sustain the program?," and "What quality improvement processes exist?" Program science helps to bring together researchers, policy makers, program planners, frontline workers, and communities for an ongoing engagement to help the program succeed.
Program science is popular in HIV/STI work right now because such work involves long-term complex population-level behavioral interventions. For HIV/STI work, program science can be especially useful in determining why some interventions aren’t as effective as they were in the past and why some disease incidence rates are leveling out (or increasing) instead of continuing to decrease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) focused on program science at their 2012 National STD Conference. In the US, HIV/STI program science can be used to strengthen public health initiatives in a time when public health funding is decreasing and funders want to see substantial impact. Program science can ensure that money is allocated to the most effective interventions that will have the greatest impact on the population. HIV related program science can be useful on a global scale to ensure that we fully understand the epidemic, who is impacted, and to ensure that the “money follows the epidemic and the interventions follow the evidence”. Because each HIV affected population of the world has different characteristics it is important to not just apply one intervention to everyone but to really understand how each population is affected and what interventions would work best for each population.
Program science is a logical progression from a focus on developing evidence-based interventions and rolling them out to a target population, to a more comprehensive focus on how various interventions are impacting the target population. this progression into a "big picture" way of looking at things will hopefully create more effective and efficient programs that contain targeted interventions to increase health of the target population. As program science continues to gain traction in public health, I believe we will see a shift to "big picture" thinking for all sorts of public health activities currently operating without this broad focus.