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Research on Research

Research on Research

Fuel Farming

Research on Research


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Michael Fox, PhD.

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Research on Research

While Dr. Fox was a staff scientist at General Electric's Corporate R&D Center in Schenectady, New York he became keenly interested in "research" per se. For example, GE provided formal training in Technology Forecasting.

During a break between bench R&D projects, GE asked Dr. Fox to examine the concept of growing crops for fuel. This was due to the long lines at gas stations during the late 1970s. People were often heard saying that if we can grow potatoes and make ethanol from potatoes, we can simply farm our way to energy independence. Dr. Fox coined this concept "Fuel Farming" and published his findings in CHEMTECH Magazine in July 1976 and again in the Proceedings of The Second Pacific Chemical Engineering Congress, August 1977.

In a nutshell, Dr. Fox concluded that we would be walking around in potatoes up to our waists and we would still be a long way off from meeting our energy needs. There are also severe limitations imposed on fuel farming by the availability of water and nutrients. He also concluded that food is ultimately more valuable than fuel. In other words, we are likely to starve to death long before we run out of fuel … and food is not a guaranteed renewable resource.

After becoming a consultant, Dr. Fox convinced a Venture Capital firm to fund "research on research." Dr. Fox's approach was to take a research project that had been highly "successful" and analyze it in fine detail from beginning to end. The goal was to identify the parameters of success and then apply those parameters to future R&D in order to improve the odds of success. In the R&D world, where risk is an inescapable part of the process, a small increase in the chance of success can mean big returns on investment. In addition to the Venture Capital firm there were also two other players: A hands-on R&D company plus a manufacturing company that was actually making the new product. Hence, there were 3 separate players. The new product was rolling off the production line and being sold. Over 20 parameters were identified, measured and generalized so that they could be used to evaluate future R&D funding.

The big surprise was that the "success" was not a success at all, but a "failure."

As might be expected, this finding by Dr. Fox was not well received and essentially all parties involved went into immediate denial. This also prompted the end of Dr. Fox's consulting relationship with the Venture Capital firm. No one likes to be told they are wrong. However, within a year of Dr. Fox's report, all that was left of the "success" was a 3-way finger-pointing contest to assign blame for the project's ultimate and unavoidable "failure." Plus the new so-called "successful" product was no longer being manufactured or sold. Over 3 million dollars had simply been wasted.

Dr. Fox's work was published in CHEMTECH Magazine in August 1996 and was titled:
"Another Look at the R&D Champion - The Dark Side, A Case Study."