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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 212-215

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Book Review

Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, The British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution

Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, The British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution. By JOHN GASCOIGNE. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. viii + 247. $64.95 (cloth).

For a public that today regularly expresses concerns and fears over whether science is operating autonomously, historian John Gascoigne's Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, The British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution provides an exhilarating account of one visionary's attempts to place an unfettered and undirected scientific community under the auspices of governmental control. The visionary, Joseph Banks (1743-1820), is perhaps best known for his [End Page 212] roles as naturalist aboard James Cook's first Pacific Island voyage (1768-71), as director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, England, and as a masterfully effective president of London's Royal Society from 1778 until his death. For the Banksian novice, John Gascoigne's previous work, John Banks and the English Enlightenment: Useful Knowledge and Polite Culture (Cambridge 1994), provides biographical detail that is, at times, alarmingly absent from Gascoigne's second major work on Banks.

This new work depict a political Banks that we have never before encountered. As with many polysemic terms like "state," "mercantilism," and "commerce," which the author carefully explains within Banks's historical context, mention of a "political" Banks begs clarification. Gascoigne argues that Banks successfully facilitated his goals through establishing close working ties with the inner circle of Britain's government while purposefully remaining detached from the "hurly-burly of party machinations." He succeeds in peeling away the public apolitical Banks in order to unveil how the privately political scientist distinctly influenced many general affairs of the British State.

In the late eighteenth century, Britain had no single channel through which scientific information and advice could be directed to the government. But in order for science to become useful for the common good, this information had to first be placed into the hands of those who wielded control over society. Banks, a member of the privileged, landowning class, envisioned his duty to establish an office through which he could provide the "Scientific Service of the Public." Gascoigne's central focus in this work analyzes the means in which Banks somewhat single-handedly succeeded in merging public policy with the usefulness of science. In doing so, Banks fulfilled a lingering Baconian ideal for science that had gone unrealized for over a century and a half.

Readers interested in more global concerns will find Gascoigne's work informative in many areas, chiefly the centrality of agricultural issues to the State. The landowning Banks strove to balance the agricultural-based quest for national sustenance with international trade. For instance, landed interests desired to export products produced in abundance (like wool) and to prohibit certain imports (such as corn). Imports were viewed as a threat from foreign interests to undermine national self-sufficiency. "If we cannot supply ourselves with bread we are not an independent nation" served as a rallying cry against Britain's Privy Council's Committee on Trade's desires to import staple food products when the nation's yields were unseasonably low. Banks's encouragement of the agriculture-minded, landed interests to maintain [End Page 213] a healthy agricultural nation were cleverly conveyed in his metaphoric message to the Prime Minister: "The Political State of a Nation may be compared [sic] to a Tree, the Roots of which are the Farmers, the lower Branches the Retale Traders, the upper ones the Manufacturers, the Flowers and Fruit to the Gentry and Nobility; if we cease to supply the Roots with Manure, the Branches Leaves Flowers and fruit must fade and wither, but in fact the more effectually the Root is nourished the more...