MDI Biological Laboratory
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Senator Collins’ Support for Science Honored in D.C., Applauded in Maine

  • September 15, 2023

Federal funding for MDI Bio Lab, JAX and Bigelow is vital for their work

Last week in Washington, D.C., Maine Senator Susan Collins accepted the 2023 Public Service Award of the Association of Independent Research Institutions (AIRI), recognizing her longstanding advocacy for research funding and her passion for combatting disease.

“Senator Collins’ unwavering and tireless championship for biomedical research and evidence-based policymaking is advancing public health and scientific innovation across the country,” said AIRI president Jeri Bowers at a luncheon that drew hundreds of officials from premier independent research labs around the nation.

Bowers is also Chief of Staff for MDI Biological Laboratory, one of three Maine research institutes that belong to AIRI. The others are The Jackson Laboratory and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

“I am deeply grateful for this recognition, and it is a pleasure to have this opportunity to express my admiration for their life-enhancing and life-saving work,” Collins said.

Throughout her Senate tenure, Collins has advocated for biomedical research funding for the National Institutes of Health – whose programs have been integral to MDI Bio Lab’s growth and successes in discovery and in science education.

In 1996 she founded the Senate Diabetes Caucus to focus on federal investment to research that disease. And Collins has worked steadily since to increase research investment for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

She is now the vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a forum where she successfully fought for eight consecutive NIH budget increases and led bipartisan support for the agency as a crucial asset in advancing public health and innovation nationwide.

“And I’m working to build on and then protect that investment; it’s imperative that we keep that momentum going,” Collins told the AIRI attendees. With a potential federal shutdown looming over budget and other conflicts, Collins says research funding is under pressure.

“To achieve a better understanding of diseases, discover means of prevention, and develop effective treatments and cures, we must maintain a steady, predictable stream of federal funding and provide targeted support for special projects in our state,” she said. “So then researchers, scientists, physicians and others will feel confident that their important work will continue to have consistent and predictable support.’’

That’s a gratifying sentiment for research institutions whose budgets can be buffeted by even small changes in funding streams.

Collins also defended the scientific enterprise itself, saying that every investment does not need to follow some predetermined track to producing a blockbuster new therapy, that outside-the-box thinking is a necessary part of the effort.

“We need to be willing to take the risk of funding some projects that are outside of the conventional projects — they’re important as well,” she said. “And we have to realize that it’s not a failed research project if it eliminates a cause of a disease. That’s just as important… I’m trying to encourage the grant makers to think more broadly and be willing to finance those kinds of research projects and recognize their value as well. It’s so exciting what you’re doing…”

Since 2017, Maine research institutions have received well more than a half-billion dollars in NIH support. In 2022 alone, NIH awarded $112.7 million in grants and contracts to Maine research institutions that directly supported 1,950 jobs and $264 million in economic activity in the state.

Partners in research advocacy: Representatives of aligned research institutions visited this week with staff in the offices of Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). Valerie Young of Bigelow Laboratory (left), Jeri Bowers of MDI Bio Lab, Diego Vazquez of JAX and Adam Carter of the Marine Biological Laboratory

Collins has led efforts by Maine’s congressional delegation to send federal funds directly to Maine for increasing scientific infrastructure at MDI Bio Lab, Bigelow Laboratory, JAX, and the University of Maine system.

Deborah Bronk, president and CEO of Bigelow Laboratory, said Collins’ support has been essential to its growth. “From helping to secure the land for our state-of-the-art laboratory more than a decade ago to helping to secure the funds needed for our soon-to-be-constructed center for ocean education and innovation, Senator Collins has provided vital support for our global ocean science,” Bronk said.

At JAX, Lon Cardon, president and CEO, emphasized Collins’ dedication to keeping the U.S. at the forefront of the mission to improve human health and save lives.

“Her advocacy underscores the pivotal role that AIRI institutions have in advancing our nation’s scientific portfolio,” Cardon said. “At JAX, we thank the Senator for championing vital research initiatives in rare diseases, aging, cancer and more, and we express our heartfelt gratitude for her enduring commitment to biomedical innovation in Maine and beyond.”

MDI Bio Lab President Hermann Haller, M.D., says Senator Collins’ impact on independent research organizations has been enormous, and has helped the Bio Lab become an internationally recognized hub for innovative research on aging and regeneration.

“The NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences funds the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which propelled our transformation into a year-round institution,” he said. “It’s also enabled our stewardship of a statewide network of scientific resources that’s providing essential research experience for Maine’s next generation of science leaders biotech workers. This is important work for Maine’s future.”