Plan to dismantle Puerto Rico’s statistics agency gets green light

The reorganization could jeopardize reliable, independent data about the island, critics say.

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People under an umbrella look at a section of collapsed road that continues to erode after Hurricane Maria swept Puerto Rico.

Official statistics on Puerto Rico, including the damage from storms such as Hurricane Maria, are caught in the political crossfire.Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

Puerto Rico’s senators this week approved a plan to overhaul an independent statistics agency tasked with coordinating the collection and analysis of crucial data — including the impact of hurricanes — on the island. The reorganization will wreck the US territory’s ability to produce credible data about itself, including updated estimates of the death toll from Hurricane Maria, critics of the plan say.

The 2 April decision paves the way towards restructuring several government agencies, including the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS). Lawmakers must now approve legislation dismantling the laws that established PRIS in order to make the reorganization official. Under Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s plan to reduce the size and cost of government agencies, first introduced in January, PRIS would become an office in the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, which would outsource the institute's duties to private companies.

But some fear that privatizing official statistics isn’t in the island’s best interests. “The private companies are going to be chosen by the government and we don't know how independent their leaders are going to be,” says Mónica Feliú-Mójer, director of communications and science outreach at Science Puerto Rico, a non-profit organization based in San Juan.

Another worry is that private companies might not distribute their data freely, or provide access to information on how they collected and analysed the numbers, says Steve Pierson, director of science policy at the American Statistical Association (ASA) in Alexandria, Virginia. The ASA, along with members of the US Congress, Puerto Rican scientists and the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico — which oversees the territory’s budget and fiscal plan — has urged the Puerto Rican government to ensure that official statistics are independent and accurate.

Crunching the numbers

Since PRIS began operating in 2007, it has worked to improve the quality of government agencies’ statistics: the institute trains statisticians in new methodologies, ensures that data collection and analysis meet international standards and helps the agencies to make their data accessible to the public. An independent board of directors supervises the statistics agency and appoints chief executives to ten-year terms to keep PRIS free of political pressures.

Over the past decade, PRIS has improved tracking of Puerto Rico’s mortality rate, which had been underestimated by the territory’s Department of Health. It has also established a system to prevent fraud related to the US Medicaid health-insurance programme, saving the government millions of dollars.

But Rosselló disputes the agency’s effectiveness. PRIS “has failed in establishing efficient data gathering procedures that produce reliable statistics”, according to Alfonso Orona, the governor’s principal legal counsel. He says that outsourcing data collection and analysis will help Puerto Rico to produce more credible statistics.

Long-lasting tension

The overhaul threat is the latest of several challenges PRIS has faced since Rosselló took office in January 2017. Last July, just before hurricanes Irma and Maria battered the island, the governor removed four scientists from the institute’s board of directors.

This decision sparked a legal dispute that meant the board could not meet for seven months. During that time, the institute couldn’t establish guidelines for how the Department of Public Security should estimate the death toll from the hurricanes. Researchers and several news outlets raised concerns that officials were underestimating the deaths from Hurricane Maria; Rosselló has since ordered a review of the storm’s death toll. Without the board of directors, PRIS was also unable to assist the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority to devise a plan to restore the island’s electrical grid.

A court ruling last month determined that the governor had removed the board members without due process, reinstated those members and allowed the board to meet again. Rosselló has appealed against this decision.

Even if the court rejects the appeal, PRIS’s future remains uncertain. It’s likely that Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives and Senate will approve the legislation that would officially dismantle the institute, says Roberto Rivera, a statistician at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. Puerto Ricans are grappling with many issues, including the aftermaths of last year’s hurricanes and a series of education and labour reforms, so PRIS is not among their priorities, he says. “If there’s not enough pressure on the government, they’ll get their way.”

Nature 556, 161 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-04120-5
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