Down to the Wire on Future of Puerto Rico’s Statistics Institute

After an intense campaign by statisticians, scientists, and members of both sides of Congress to persuade Puerto Rico’s legislature to preserve the independence of its statistical agency, the island’s elected political representatives will decide by Saturday whether the future of official statistics lies inside or outside government.

The proposal, which is part of a broader governmental reorganization plan, would place the collection and dissemination of statistical data within the jurisdiction of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce. Critics warn such a move threatens the accuracy of official data due to the risk of political influence.

While the independence of the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics (PRIS) might seem a minor issue as the U.S. territory deals with bankruptcy, debt, and economic stagnation, reliable government statistics are essential to securing economic and social well-being. PRIS, though historically underfunded, has helped save Puerto Rico hundreds of millions of dollars; it has pointed out significant errors in governance, such as the overestimation of the rate of inflation. But this success has often been in the face of political obstruction and, now, may be the cause of its demise.

PRIS was excluded from efforts to calculate the death toll from last October’s devastating Hurricane Maria, which the government put at 64. A series of studies by researchers and the news media suggest the indirect death toll was much higher and, recently, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health calculated the death toll was likely between 793 and 8,498, based on a survey of 3,299 households.

The number, albeit inflated by many news accounts’ failure to accurately report what the confidence intervals meant, highlighted the failure of Puerto Rico’s government to assess one of the worst natural disasters in the island’s history. A later analysis using subsequently released official death counts puts the current count closer to 2,000 than 64.

Suddenly, the role of PRIS as a source of accurate, reliable data—and its impending extinction—was headline news across the U.S., underscoring the importance of independently collected statistical data. We are about to see if that attention has helped or sealed PRIS's fate.