Fred Nyberg learns us to Just Say No
21 November 2022
As the scientific voice in the often emotionally driven debate about drugs and addiction, Fred Nyberg is in demand far beyond Sweden's borders, but also often endures criticism from drug liberal forces. "The spotlight can be demanding, but over time you learn to choose your battles," states the 77 year old and still going strong Senior Professor of Biological Research on Drug Dependence.
On a Tuesday in November, Uppsala University's Forum for Research on Drug Dependence, U-FOLD, is celebrating its 10th anniversary. After two years online, expectations are high and all 600 seats were rapidly reserved by researchers, professionals and politicians from across the nation. "U-FOLD is undoubtedly the best in Sweden at arranging arenas for dialogue on the challenges of addiction," states Gabriel Romanus, former Minister of Social Affairs, somewhere in the crowd. Behind the stage, the forum has just received the Nordic Drugs Grand Prize for numerous and valuable contributions to research, education and social debate. "It is an honor for us to present this award to initiator Fred Nyberg, who has from the start been of crucial importance to the forum and its continuous development," states the company's representative on site.
“The launch of U-FOLD was a response to an investigation that at the time advocated a national competence center for addiction research and care. I knew that Uppsala had all the skills required but lacked a joint platform. A number of phone calls later our forum was a fact. The investigator's recommendation ultimately led nowhere, but in many ways our forum has become exactly the catalyst our field needed, so Nordic Drugs Grand Prize is a recognition I really take to heart,” says Fred Nyberg, Senior Professor in Biological Research on Drug Dependence.
After four decades as the voice of science in the debate on drugs and addiction, Fred Nyberg is a household name far beyond the framework of academia. Media audiences recognize him from countless television programs and newspaper articles. As a vivid public educator and lecturer, he has visited most Swedish communities. Nevertheless, informing with facts is not embraced by all in a field where personal opinions are often given free rein, and for a period Fred Nyberg found himself the subject of a series of critical threads on the online forum Flashback.
“As researchers, we have a statutory responsibility to take the results of our research into society, and when the government appointed me Director of Research Issues at the Swedish National Drug Policy Coordinator, I became a natural contact for many journalists. I learned early on the importance of straightforward, simple answers so they would not take the question elsewhere, and not necessarily where the knowledge is. At the same time, the spotlight can be demanding, but over time you learn to choose your battles. For example, when SVT once invited me to discuss cannabis, I knew by the composition of the panel that I would be the old, conservative fuddy-duddy, so I forwarded the offer to a younger colleague. Regarding the Flashback threads, I merely consider them amusing merits,” states Fred Nyberg.
The Nybergian curiosity was probably present from birth. When his kindergarten comrades wheeled their tin cars around, the professor-to-be open the hood to explore what was hiding underneath. When asthma kept him from the smoking area of the local high school, he turned to the natural sciences. And defending his PhD thesis with a focus on growth hormones was more of a starting point: Years later, Fred Nyberg would develop the themes of his dissertation to show how it is possible to recreate cognitive functions in a heroin-damaged brain. A discovery that continues to fascinate the scientific world and prompt requests for lectures.
“Research has always formed the basis of my professional activities and along the way opened numerous important doors. This includes my assignments at the Swedish governmental Addiction (ANDT) Advisory Board and Svenska Spel's Independent Research Council, which in turn provided valuable contacts to the police and the sports movement. As Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy, I worked close to the Swedish Medical Products Agency and pharmaceutical industry. And when I in 2014 was elected the first non-American to chair the International Narcotics Research Conference, literally a whole world opened up where I found myself having lunch with China's Minister of Public Health one day and in a meeting with the CIA shortly thereafter.”
In his efforts with Science outreach – the university's third task – Fred Nyberg has given Sweden a prominent place on the addiction research map. In parallel, he has continuously brought the frontline of his field to Uppsala. Mary Jeanne Kreek, pioneer in the development of methadone treatment for heroin addiction, and Abba Kastin, portal figure in the medical-biological sciences, are among those who have started collaborations with the Faculty of Pharmacy: Two of many in a personal network that constitutes an almost unique asset. Still, despite generous proposals from other Institutes, the thought of leaving his alma mater has never occurred.
“The Faculty of Pharmacy is a fantastic environment that has had great significance for me and my work. Today, I maintain my contact with Uppsala University as a Senior professor and Advisor in U-FOLD, but also want to take the knowledge I can contribute into the future. Currently, I am involved in a project where we implement Artificial Intelligence into the treatment of alcoholism. And just recently I participated in a program where I answer children's questions about addiction, which feels extremely important. Protecting our young people – not least from drugs – must always be among a society's priority challenges.”
Facts Fred Nyberg
- Profession: Senior Professor in Biological Addiction Research at Uppsala University
- Age: 77 years
- Lives: In Luthagen in central Uppsala
- On the bedside table: A number of crossword puzzles and the book Brain on Fire, an interesting account by journalist Susannah Cahalan of her struggle with and recovery from a rare form of encephalitis.
- I remember meeting: A political spokesman for the Russian newspaper Izvestija who, when I visited Moscow in 1984, invited me to dinner in his grand apartment. While the agents assigned to follow my every step waited in the stairwell, I listened to his experiences in Indochina during the Vietnam War.
- The Fred Nyberg Talk Show Would focus on the importance of helping young people find other stimulants than drugs. It's something I've been passionate about since my time as a youth football coach in Sirius and still often lecture on.