Critics blast move to dismember Puerto Rico’s statistical agency

Source: Science Magazine

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.”