Forty-seven stateside and international scientific organizations and professional societies sent a letter to Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló urging him to keep the Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics autonomous and independent.
The letter is the latest show of support for the Caribbean island’s only independent and dedicated source of statistics.
Earlier this year, the island’s legislature was considering a proposal that would dismantle the Institute by reorganizing the agency’s statistical functions and placing them under the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC by its initials in Spanish.)
The plan also requires the DDEC’s secretary to outsource all statistical functions currently performed by PRIS.
Rosselló is expected to present the latest reorganization plan in the coming days, which the legislature must approve by June 30.
Currently, the Institue is an independent government agency of the executive branch with many protections established by law — including having an executive director named to 10-year terms and a board of directors composed by experts — to ensure its impartial collection, production and communication of statistical data. Such protections would be eliminated under the government’s current reorganization plan.
The letter — led by the American Statistical Association and transmitted by American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Rush Holt — emphasizes the importance of PRIS continuing to operate independently of political influences, bureaucracy, and conflicts of interest.
In justifying this call, the letter states, “At this critical historical juncture, Puerto Rico needs accurate, objective and timely statistics. Government statistics empower the economy, serve the health and welfare of citizens, improve governance and inform decisions and policies in the public and private sectors, among many other vital functions.”
“Government statistics are also fundamental to evidence-based policymaking, the engagement of which is on a rapid rise in local, state and federal governments. To address the challenges posed by its decade-long economic recession and the devastation of back-to-back hurricanes, Puerto Rico must chart its path toward sustainable recovery using reputable and reliable data and statistical methods,” the organizations added.
Experts believe inaccurate and dated statistical systems underlie many of the problems Puerto Rico is now facing.
For example, before Hurricanes Irma and María, which devastated the island in September 2017, Puerto Rico lacked the appropriate statistical methods to accurately measure deaths caused by natural disasters.
Despite multiple reports that indicate more than 1,000 people died because of Hurricane María, the official government death toll remains at 64. Recently, the Institute approved a series of methods to measure the death toll from future natural disasters in Puerto Rico, as well as to produce the final estimates of the Hurricane María death toll in Puerto Rico.
Organizations list Institute’s milestones
Although the Institute has been underfunded for years and must constantly deal with resistance from other local agencies to collaborate, its accomplishments have helped the commonwealth in many ways.
For example, its work helped identify Medicaid fraud, saving taxpayers $10 million annually, and revealed a statistical bias in the formulas used to compensate doctors in Puerto Rico under Medicare that cost the local economy about $120 million annually.
The agency also played a crucial role in correcting the Consumer Price Index, which the government had been overestimating between 2001 and 2006, causing Puerto Ricans to unnecessarily pay more for everyday items such as gasoline.
Since the plans to dismantle the Institute were announced, the organization has not only received strong and swift support from the scientific community, but from individuals and political leaders in Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland.
A petition, in part organized by the ASA, asking Puerto Rico’s political leaders to reconsider its reorganization plans has been signed by more than 3,000 individuals, including former National Institutes of Health Director and Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus and president of the National Academy of Sciences Bruce Alberts.
Signifying the importance of the issue, the number of U.S. and international organizations that have signed today’s letter rivals the 46 that signed onto this year’s statement of support for former Greek chief statistician Andreas Georgiou, who is facing civil and criminal charges for his leadership to produce the economic statistical data between 2010 and 2015.
There have also been multiple op-eds and articles published by outlets including BBC, NBC News, Sense about Science USA, Scientific American, The Hill, Science and Nature. ASA President Lisa LaVange sent letters to Rosselló, the PR Senate president and the PR House speaker, protesting the plan.
“At a moment when Puerto Rico residents are demanding transparency on critical issues such as the restoration of electrical power and proposed education reforms, the island is also debating the best path forward for recovery and trying to project the effects of austerity measures on the Puerto Rican economy,” the organizations said.
“Eliminating [the Institute] now would be counterproductive. An Institute of Statistics that is autonomous, independent, free of conflict of interests and receiving appropriate levels of funding is key for reliable and publicly accessible statistics, which in turn are of utmost importance to the evidence-based public policies that can lift Puerto Rico out of its crisis,” the organizations added.