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Why do men grow beards? Because they can. This may seem like a silly answer, but it is more meaningful that you might first construe. Beards and moustaches come and go in fashion, and in recent years the cultivation of facial hair has become an annual event for many men, sanctioned by charities, such as Movember and Decembeard. Young men cannot wait to shave off the adolescent fuzz that creeps around their cheeks and upper lips. It is a badge of honour to be a clean shaven teenager. In time, once the fuzz has manifestly turned into hair worth cutting, they may let it grow, perhaps just to see what colour it is—regrettably it may not match your head for nature is cruel that way. They may style it into sideburns, a moustache or one of the many manifestations of the beard.

It is ultimately about control. An adventure in facial hair is something over which the man has complete control. When living a life that is so full of constraints, the ability to have something, no matter how trivial, that you are solely responsible for, whose presence or absence can turn on a personal whim, is just a little intoxicating.

My own beard was slow in coming. I still recall smarting at the taunts of friends because of my baby face when I was a 17-year-old first-year medical student. I barely had fuzz, and at the time I thought it was nothing less than shaming. But some of us just have to wait a little longer for what everyone else seems to have already been given. Eventually, I caught up, and I have played all the games I can think of with my razor over the years—because I can.

Recently, I regrew my beard just to see how grey it had become. As you would have been able to tell me, had I bothered to ask, this was a mistake, and I should have known that the result could do little for my self-esteem. The only consolation was that after shaving it off, everyone was astonished at how young I had suddenly become. I say ‘everyone’, but in truth most people didn’t notice I had shaved it off, in the same way that they had never noticed that I had grown it in the first place. Such is the truth of most of the apparently momentous personal style decisions that one undertakes. I am fairly certain that if I should dye what little hair I have left bright green, the most I could muster as a response from the majority of my intimates would be, ‘There’s something different about you—can’t quite tell what—have you lost weight?’

We do place far too great a store on how other people perceive us. It’s not necessarily that they don’t care—although many don’t—it’s more that they haven’t the time or the energy or the inclination to bother. The cavalcade of life marches on and whether you have a beard or not, or even green hair or not, just doesn’t figure too highly on the scale of what matters to your onlookers. So, like every other man, the hair on my chin is mine and mine alone. I care about it, and I shouldn’t care that others don’t. Such is also the case with much of the research that I have undertaken in my career.

Research is often applied and intensely practical in its intention. This is particularly so of clinical research, which often aims to answer a specific question relating to patient management. Is this drug better than that drug for these patients? Should we perform this procedure in this way or that way for the greatest improvement? Which type of patients are most at risk? Who should do what, eat what, drink what? You get the idea.

Some research, however, is not practical. There is no apparent application of the findings, irrespective of what they are; no obvious use for the work. And, of course, no real case to be made for its support or funding, especially in these straightened times. Such undirected research is a work of discovery for discovery’s sake, and may be seen by many as a vanity—a waste of time and money and scare resources, when all around us there are real clinical problems that need to be answered. The trouble with this attitude, however, is that it loses sight of why men grow beards. Scientists want to control something. They want to be responsible for the direction of their work and not always be corralled into some fashionable furrow, working and producing data on demand and ready-made to order. The often-made argument for even considering this approach to our work is that such blue-sky research can yield remarkably practical outcomes by chance, like penicillin, the transistor, or whatever is considered the clinching example of the day. This, however, misses the point.

We don’t want to do such research because it might allow us to strike (clinical) gold, even if that’s an excuse to allow us to do it. We want to do this kind of research to exercise our rights of control over our own intellects. We want to go down paths just to see what’s there, not because we know there’s a cure at the end of it. We want to turn a light on in a darkened room, not because we might see a new way of dealing with a clinical problem in the glare, but because light allows us to see the truth, whatever that truth is. And, turning lights on is what scientists do.

Like growing a beard, some research has no practical application—it is simply not for anything. Except that it is—it is to allow us to explore, unhindered by purpose; to browse unfettered by the need to buy; to play, to wonder, to imagine, to question. So, why should we do such research? The same reason we gave for that beard—’Because we can.’

© Allan Gaw 2015

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