Professor Che Chi-ming, chair professor at Hong Kong University, feels appreciated. 'I think this is the first time a foundation is looking after the scientists. Of course the RGC [Research Grants Council] supports projects, but usually the scientists are quite lonely.' He is one of four senior staff at Hong Kong institutions awarded a Croucher senior fellowship to drop their teaching duties and spend more time at their laboratory benches for a year. Although he is grateful, Professor Che reckons a year will not be long enough. 'If it could be two years I think that would be very good - I could get most of the things I want to do, done. A year is a very short time - in other places usually a fellowship like this would be for five years,' he said. 'But it's a lot of money, and I have to thank the Croucher Foundation.' Under the scheme, the university gets about $700,000 to employ a teacher to take over the Croucher fellow's classes. Professor Che has in mind a researcher from the prestigious California institute Caltech, whom he hopes can come to teach and help with his research, which he sees as fitting in with the fellowship's aims. Chair professor in engineering Brian Duggan is more sanguine. He says he doesn't want to lose all his undergraduate teaching, which he enjoys and regards as critical. 'The university doesn't produce [research] papers, it produces graduates,' he says. As far as administration goes, he says some of the 30 or so committees on which he sits 'will need to be sensitive' and do without him. Professor Che, Professor Duggan and the third Hong Kong University fellow, physics chair professor David Tong, are all crystallographers. Professor Tong rushed from the ceremony to a Japanese conference. Professor Che has two aims for his research year: to build up a joint chemistry laboratory just set up with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and to focus on understanding molecular materials and producing new catalysts with the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry. 'I will conduct more fundamental research. We want to understand the structural relation to optical and mechanical properties. There's no point making something without understanding its properties.' Developing new catalysts - he is particularly interested in ruthenium metal - could have big implications for industry. He aims to help China's drugs industry through the Shanghai institute, which has the best chemists in China, he says. 'We have already got some important reactions understood.' Professor Duggan is very keen to get away from 'science managing' his research group and return to the lab. 'I'm going to burn myself with acids and work all night.' He is interested in the structure of metals and how to process them, particularly in the solid state. 'I'm trying to unravel the way nature behaves when we force it to do unnatural things - usually metals exist as oxides in nature.' Change of crystal structures from one solid state to another by atomic diffusion, when you press or heat the metal, is one of the most difficult things to understand, he says - but a lot of industry rests on improving it. His aim for the year is to 'write the best paper for 30 years'. The last fellow, chair professor of biology at Baptist University Wong Ming-hung, will give up his department headship to concentrate on his research. One project seeks plants that can accumulate the deadly metal waste left at lead and zinc mines, starting with one in Lechang, northern Guangdong; the other, similarly, will search for plants that can absorb the lethal gases and leachate built up in old landfills and turn useless dumps into parks. These are a hot topic worldwide: US researchers, for instance, have recently found that humble sugar beet and pondweed can mop up contaminating explosives such as trinitrotoluene (TNT) left behind on munitions dumps. The third study looks at how feasible it is to use sewage effluent for fish growth, using up nutrients and cutting pollution. Unlike Professor Che, Professor Wong reckons a year is about right: 'If it's too long there's a danger that someone could be isolated from their other duties.' If this exercise works, the plan is to make it regular.