It’s been a devastating and frustrating year for many Puerto Ricans. Irma and Maria caused billions in physical damage to Puerto Rico, but now the commonwealth faces a new threat: its legislature has again moved to dismantle the Puerto Rican Institute of Statistics (PRIS), a trusted, independent source of official data.
This move goes against recommendations of a bipartisan congressional Task Force on Puerto Rico, and simple common sense. Members of the legislature have through June 30 to improve this bill in conference, and conferees must act to preserve the independence and accuracy of statistical information that is crucial for the long-term recovery and economic development of Puerto Rico. If it respects the need for an independent and reliable source of essential data, the legislative conference committee should carve out Chapter XII—the PRIS section of the House bill—from the conference report or agree to postpone its consideration until the next session.
There is broad agreement that a reputation for independent, accurate statistical reporting is an important building block for Puerto Rico’s future economic development, so it’s easy to see why so many scientists and statisticians are baffled PRIS has faced such determined opposition. It’s difficult to fathom an asset that would be harder for the government to recreate than an institute which has spent the last decade building up a reputation for independence, credibility and a commitment to statistical fidelity.
Puerto Rico’s legislators have a rare opportunity this week. After months of rancor, affirming support for an independent PRIS would send a powerful signal that Puerto Rico is committed to reform and transparency, and that the commonwealth needs no outside assistance to make that commitment.
Earlier this year two of the top three scientific journals covered challenges to PRIS alongside cutting edge research in gene therapy and artificial intelligence. The government proposed to privatize the institute, but not until it first made it a division of the department of economic planning. Puerto Rican scientists, transparency advocates, and outside observers shared a consistent critique: “This makes no sense.”
How this small agency became such a large target is difficult to understand. Its budget (posted publicly) is a fraction of what Puerto Rico is spending to support the Fiscal Oversight Board. The director is a former Federal Reserve economist. Its staff comes from many academic fields, it uses open source software, it posts code on a public github page, it invites you to email questions about where to find data. And, by all accounts, the statistical work PRIS performs is high quality and high impact—it has saved Puerto Ricans millions of tax dollars, it provides open access to vital data, and it has made large, improvements in the accuracy of important statistical measures, including the rate of inflation and even Puerto Rico’s death rate.
A judge’s ruling in support of the independent board of directors came earlier this spring. Public pressure from a group of 47 scientific organizations suggested things are on track. Yet against the advice of the local professional community and experts—along with thousands of individual scientists and statisticians—the legislature is again poised to eliminate PRIS.
An independent statistical agency is needed to provide public data without fear of political considerations is vital to a functioning democracy. It’s also vital to a well-functioning economy.
Puerto Rico is still in the throes of an enormous financial debt crisis, facing a rising outcry for that crisis, and still recovering from hurricanes Irma and Maria. Given widespread concerns over government credibility, an agency like PRIS is invaluable.
Puerto Rico must act to keep PRIS independent.
Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress, is cowritter of this column.