The nearly 20-year-old Croucher Foundation is hardly known beyond some university science staff and students. But now it may become more widely known, particularly in schools, as it looks for new areas in which to spread founder Noel Croucher's largesse. It was the foundation, and not the Government, which first began funding research at the universities, and it has ensured that many important studies have been done that otherwise might not have got off the ground. Now its rather quaint, upper-class Britishness is being diluted. Croucher confidante and first trustee Lord Todd died in January, and current chairman Lord Butterfield resigned last month. That leaves only three trustees with titles among the remaining nine, half of whom are Chinese. Four out of five of the founders, in contrast, were British, albeit with wide Hong Kong knowledge - the only local was Dr Rayson Huang, then vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University. The trustees' first new plan is to give four senior fellowships worth a total of about $3 million to senior university staff to give them a chance to throw off administration and teaching and devote themselves to research for a year. The money, in effect, pays for a stand-in teacher. Lord Butterfield said the aim was to prevent good research being killed by bureaucracy. 'Surely it has to be a good thing to let people think?' he said. Though the trustees can spend what they wish of the trust's capital as well as income, they cannot do exactly as they like: Croucher, described by Todd in his first chairman's report as 'colourful' and clearly strong-willed, set some arguably idiosyncratic principles. He wanted to support Hong Kong scholars going abroad to study postgraduate science, technology and medicine, but to Britain or the Commonwealth, not United States' universities. He would allow other research to be considered in future, but God forbid that would include sociology, and he viewed social science in general with suspicion, according to Lord Todd. He was also far-sighted in his wish to support contact and joint research with mainland scientists. To that the trustees added sponsorship of international conferences held in the territory, particularly important now, according to director Anthony Tsui. 'We believe it's essential for Hong Kong to keep an international link and people from outside may feel less willing to co-operate with Hong Kong scientists [because of 1997],' he said. 'So we've got to bring people here to show them how good or bad Hong Kong science is.' He says Croucher's first restriction was because he feared anyone going to the US would not return to benefit Hong Kong science, which was his goal. It will be interesting to see what the foundation's first Chinese chairman, Professor Kan Yuet-wai, will make of it; he is a Hong Kong-born American, renowned in molecular genetics at the University of California at San Francisco. The foundation's history is a mix of interesting characters and ambitious philanthropy. Noel Victor Amor Croucher was born at the height of Queen Victoria's reign, on Christmas Eve 1891, and arrived in the territory in 1910. Sir Frederick Lugard was governor, the New Territories really were new, coolies carried Europeans in sedan chairs. Croucher came as a junior clerk in a trading company; he remained a Hong Kong resident until he died on March 6, 1980. He got his break when, as a stockbroker's clerk after the war, he met Legislative Councillor and early reclamation planner Sir Paul Chater, who appointed Croucher as his financial adviser. Croucher founded a stockbroking business. In 1978, Lord Todd, a chemistry expert at Cambridge, met Croucher through his friend Lady May Ride, wife of Hong Kong University vice-chancellor Sir Lindsay Ride. Croucher was clearly impressed with Todd, who was head of the Nuffield Foundation, a British trust. Despite (or perhaps because of) his financial background, he showed little interest in using his money to boost this aspect of Hong Kong life. 'He felt that training in the financial market was not capital intensive and a lot of people could afford that, but science, technology and medicine are very capital intensive,' said Mr Tsui. Only a few months after setting up the trust, Croucher died, possibly from pneumonia, after running for a bus in the rain. The trust began with capital of about GBP20 million (about HK$240 million) in 1979, which has swelled to about $1.1 billion now. Initial efforts sent postgraduate scholars abroad, sponsored top undergraduates to continue studies in Hong Kong and supported some local research. The foundation committed in its first year an estimated $10 million for scholarships and research over the next three years. By 1995 it was supporting 110 projects, from cloning of genes to pollution studies in the Pearl River delta, and about the same number of scholars and fellows. Special projects, mainly with mainland universities, will still receive funds. But otherwise 'we want to look for real gaps in funding - the trustees want to take a pioneering role', Mr Tsui said. One gap may be boosting science training in schools, either by increasing information to teachers or helping students spend summers in laboratories.