Unreliable statistics have been a problem in Puerto Rico. The government recently grossly undercounted Hurricane Maria’s death toll.

Hamiel Irizarry/PRNG/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

After outcry, Puerto Rico’s legislature spares statistical agency

Puerto Rico has backed away from a controversial plan to eliminate a key statistical agency.

Puerto Rico’s legislature last week approved legislation that calls for a sweeping reorganization of one government agency—but only after it eliminated a provision critics feared would gut statistical collection and analysis on the island.

In the reorganization’s crosshairs was the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics (PRIS), an independent government agency in San Juan. Although PRIS doesn’t collect much data itself, it analyzes the statistics collected by other government agencies, identifies errors, and helps fix methodological problems. Rather than being run by a political appointee, PRIS is overseen by an independent board of directors that appoints CEOs to 10-year terms.

Puerto Rico has long struggled with unreliable statistics, manifested most recently in its dramatic underestimate of deaths caused by Hurricane Maria last fall.

Earlier versions of the reorganization bill proposed bringing PRIS under the control of Puerto Rico’s Department of Economic Development and Commerce. Statistical data collection would have been centralized within that department and then outsourced to the private sector. Governor Ricardo Rosselló told Science in February the reorganization would streamline statistical collection and analysis, as well as encourage the United States to extend its data collection programs to the island.

Outside observers worried the bill would undermine PRIS’s political independence and thus, the trustworthiness of Puerto Rico’s statistics. Fifteen U.S. congressional representatives, as well as dozens of scientific organizations, criticized the proposal. (AAAS, which publishes Science, was among them.)

On 30 June, Puerto Rico’s legislature approved the reorganization of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce but eliminated the clauses that mentioned PRIS, preserving the agency’s current structure and independence. Lawmakers promised to “attend to matters related to [PRIS] in forthcoming legislation.”

PRIS CEO Mario Marazzi-Santiago said in a statement he is committed to “sustaining an open dialogue about [PRIS’s] future … so that it allows us to continue working to ensure that data collection and statistical systems, upon which public policies are based, are complete, trustworthy, and able to be accessed quickly and universally.”

“I commend the Puerto Rico legislature for maintaining the independence of [PRIS],” said Lisa LaVange, president of the American Statistical Association in Alexandria, Virginia. “Having independent, strong, and transparent statistics will serve the health, well-being, and economy of Puerto Rico and its people for decades to come. The uncertainty in the number of deaths due to the devastating 2017 hurricanes helped to make this point and it’s now imperative that PRIS be funded to function at full capacity."

*Correction, 3 July, 2:10 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct a translation error in the statement of PRIS CEO Mario Marazzi-Santiago.