The seventeenth-century Academy cost its royal patron at least 2,000,000 livres for pensions, the Observatory, and research subventions. It also benefited from nearly 400,000 livres spent on it and other royal establishments jointly. In principle, the Academy cost on average about 63,000 livres a year, with pensions representing the lion's share at 32,400 livres; the Observatory was in second place at 21,440 livres, and research was the least costly at 9,100 livres a year. In fact, from Colbert to Pontchartrain the Academy's budget declined markedly, and under Pontchartrain academicians saw their pensions become annuities. Both trends had deleterious consequences for academicians personally and for their research.
Royal funding influenced the nature of the Academy's research as much as it did the character of the institution itself. Access to royal funds gave the Academy an advantage over other scientific societies, because it could mount ambitious collaborative projects. Yet the result was to limit the institution's scientific vision. Academicians and their protectors believed that theory would improve practice and that accumulating data was the necessary preliminary to hypothesizing. But collective projects gained a momentum of their own, so that theorizing was sometimes neglected in favor of practical applications. Furthermore, dependence on royal funding made research more vulnerable to ministerial interference, and this could be damaging when the protector failed to appreciate scientific priorities.
Finances, however, tell only part of the story. They mostly reflect the expensive, collaborative projects, but academicians also pursued more modest research as individuals, albeit with moral and material support from the Academy. Indeed, Carcavi and Huygens boasted that members "did not make enquiry into any one subject in particular but every one took unto his examination what suited best with his own fancy and genius." How may such freedom of choice be reconciled with the facts of corporate planning and ministerial control? Three general points resolve this paradox. First, academicians agreed among themselves about the important questions, and they were in sympathy about the general aims of the
institution. Second, because academicians believe that theoretical science should have practical benefits for society, they shared with their patrons various utilitarian expectations of the Academy. Third, the distinction between official and individual projects enabled an academician to work on several problems at once; team members cooperated on descriptions of plants or dissections, but an academician might also pursue specific interests such as the circulation of sap or the nature of hearing. This flexibility was available more readily in natural history than in astronomy, where the hierarchy of the Academy restricted the choices of some academicians, especially the students, who principally assisted others. Nevertheless, academicians used the company as a resource for work that interested them, and thus patronage for official projects also protected the individual projects of academicians.
To understand the Academy, however, it is necessary to look behind the scenes, to explore what royal funds actually bought, to observe the institution at work. The Academy's research on plants exemplifies many characteristics of the institution as a whole. It reveals conflicts between individual and collaborative projects, between theoretical and practical expectations, and between academicians and their protectors. Because botany was in flux, academicians were often uncertain of themselves: they had to adjust to the failure of their theories, test new instruments, and explore new analogies. Their research also offers a glimpse into the relations of this elite and somewhat secretive institution with the larger scientific and lay community. Thus, botanical research, a neglected but important aspect of the scientific revolution, may serve as a barometer of the institution as a whole.