Unreliable statistics are a problem in Puerto Rico. Most recently, the government grossly undercounted Hurricane Maria’s death toll.


Critics blast move to dismember Puerto Rico’s statistical agency

Puerto Rico’s legislature is set to consider a bill that critics say would hobble the collection and analysis of statistical data on the island. Scientists, business groups, and even some U.S. congressional representatives contend that a proposed overhaul of the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics (PRIS) in San Juan, an independent agency, would undermine the independence and trustworthiness of data on Puerto Rico. But Governor Ricardo Rosselló told Science that privatizing parts of PRIS and encouraging the federal government to take over the rest would do precisely the opposite: He argues that it would restore credibility to statistics collected in the territory.

Last month, following up on a promise he made during the 2016 election campaign, Rosselló proposed a sweeping overhaul of Puerto Rico’s government agencies. Under the reorganization, PRIS would come under the control of Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce, with a mandate to consolidate all data collection responsibilities on the island within that department and then outsource those functions to the private sector. Now, Puerto Rico’s government agencies each collect their own statistics, with PRIS analyzing the data and ensuring that methodologies meet international standards. Rosselló says his plan would streamline the process. The Puerto Rican House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on the measure on Wednesday; the island’s Senate also plans to take it up this week.

Although PRIS, which employs 12 data scientists, doesn’t collect much data itself, CEO Mario Marazzi-Santiago says it provides the government with vital services. For example, PRIS recently identified and corrected methodological mistakes made by other agencies that led Puerto Rico to underestimate its mortality statistics and overestimate inflation. Now, PRIS is part of the executive branch but is overseen by an independent board of directors that appoints CEOs to 10-year terms. That setup is unusual in Puerto Rico, where most government appointments are made by the political party in power. “PRIS is an exception since the law that created it guarantees its autonomy,” says Rafael Irizarry, an applied statistician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Harvard University. “Once PRIS falls under a government agency, it is no longer autonomous.”

“We need something that uniformly works in an independent way, regardless of political parties,” agrees Roberto Rivera, a statistician at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.

Rosselló, who has a Ph.D. in bioengineering, says that consolidation and privatization would do just that. He’s frustrated that even a decade after PRIS’s establishment, unreliable statistics remain a problem for the island. Most recently, the government dramatically undercounted the death toll from Hurricane Maria. (PRIS was not invited to calculate or vet the death toll from the hurricane.)

“It’s been one of the main areas of criticism [of Puerto Rico], that we don’t have verifiable and good statistics,” Rosselló says. “Let’s just fix it by consolidating all of these data-driven entities into one, and then let’s take it completely out of local government for it to be managed.” He points out that the U.S. federal government excludes Puerto Rico from many of the statistical programs it manages for states, including surveys about housing, education, and criminal justice. He hopes the reorganization and outsourcing plan will encourage the federal government to extend more of its data collection programs to Puerto Rico.

Marazzi-Santiago says his agency has established itself as a trusted liaison between Puerto Rico and the federal government. Fifteen U.S. congressional representatives agreed in a 2 February letter to the United States’s chief statistician, calling PRIS “a key ally of the federal statistical agencies” and expressing concern over the reorganization. PRIS is currently working with the U.S. Census Bureau on preparations for the 2020 census. If the reorganization passes, “all of those collaborations and initiatives would stop,” Marazzi-Santiago says. “Instead of seeing [PRIS’s] assets, the [local] government just wants to tear it down.”

Critics of Rosselló’s plan say PRIS’s unique organizational structure ensures its independence, and that privatization brings up a host of questions regarding conflicts of interest, transparency, and public availability of data. “The ability to withstand improper political or outside influence is imperative, because people need to trust the data,” says Steve Pierson, director of science policy for the American Statistical Association in Alexandria, Virginia. “From so many angles, this does not seem like a good proposal.”