Interview with Monika Sie Dhian Ho: Neutral and evidence-based research is valuable to everyone

How can research institutes thrive in the contemporary fast-paced information-demanding environment? We have discussed such issue with Monika Sie Dhian Ho, the director of Clingendael - the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Monika Sie Dhian Ho is the General Director of the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands. The Clingendael Institute is a prominent think tank and diplomatic academy based in The Hague, Netherlands. The institute is renowned for its research, training, and public discussion, and aims to enhance insights on global affairs and contribute to policy formulation at both national and international levels. Clingendael works with governments, non-governmental organizations, and private sector entities, providing strategic analysis on topics such as European affairs, security policy and diplomacy. In a podcast interview hosted by Dominik Čech, Sie Dhian Ho discusses not only the challenges European research institutes face but also what makes them so invaluable in the contemporary fast-paced information-demanding environment.


As the director of the Clingendael Institute and also a researcher observing the rapid changes in the social sciences, what challenges do you face in presenting your research to the public in today's fast-paced, information-saturated environment? 

That is a good and complex question. I believe it is essential to maintain a focus on societal and policy relevance in our research, even if it means that it takes a longer amount of time to develop insights. At Clingendael, we choose our research topics based on extensive polling with the aim to understand the primary concerns and hopes of the Dutch people. This not only keeps our research relevant but also ensures that it is deeply connected to what matters most to the populace. This approach of listening before leading and explaining, forms the core of our engagement strategy. 

Previously, the Institute's voice was often synonymous with the director, who would frequently appear in the media, and it became evident that it is very difficult for one individual to understand what is happening across the globe. Now, we've decentralized this responsibility, and divided it among about 25 individuals. Our team doesn’t just explain; they also listen. They're actively engaging with the public's concerns and aspirations. This change is crucial, especially in our current politically charged environment, because without this engagement, maintaining trust would be challenging. 

How does the Institute manage to be more inclusive and responsive in its public interactions? 

We've moved from being viewed as distant experts to being seen as active participants in public discourse. Our surveys provide a detailed picture of public opinion on various aspects of foreign policy, which helps us in framing our research. Elections and referenda offer some insights, but through our detailed surveys, we can understand the underlying factors that drive public sentiment. This allows us to predict future political outcomes more accurately and tailor our initiatives accordingly. 

With the rise of polarization and ideological divisions, how can experts effectively offer their knowledge in public debates that often demand simplistic solutions? 

The key is continuous engagement through a balanced approach of listening and explaining, coupled with transparency about who funds our research. We ensure that our work is not swayed by governmental bodies or major corporate interests. I have stepped back from active political engagement to focus solely on research, reinforcing our commitment to independence and objectivity. 

How do you balance the demand from politicians and the public for quick and comprehensible information with the complex nature of your research? 

Our commitment is to conduct evidence-based research and present it in a way that informs better decision-making without lobbying or public relations efforts. We focus on genuine research activities and avoid positions that could be perceived as biased. This stance helps us maintain credibility. 


So, for example, we have a Balkan hub. We conduct research on the Balkans. We conduct research on the prospective EU enlargement, but we do not handle public relations for these countries. We are also not a hub for influencing the Netherlands' position on the admission of these nations into the EU.   

Nobody can accuse us of being biased or of protecting someone else's interests. So we really draw a line there. We do research. We invite scholars from other nations to use Clingendael as a base for a period, but we do not handle public affairs or lobbying.   

This may sound like an easy topic, but how can you constructively critique policies? Do you find it difficult to strike a balance between being helpful and not sugar-coating things?   

That is an excellent question. Because we do not have the luxury of institutional subsidies, we must build a trusting connection with our clients. Nonetheless, we made the call since we are co-owners of the research questions. So if we don't believe the research questions bring value to our goal, we don't pursue them. So we've turned down certain assignments.   

In those cases, we didn't want to do it because we figured, okay, the client might want to know, but it's too biased toward an interest that isn't ours. It is too narrowly focused on the interests of a single firm or government. So I think it is helpful to be specific about which research questions you want to pursue and which you don't, and to be the co-owner and co-author of those research questions that you do want to pursue.  We produce the results, and that's all.   

When producing outputs like policy papers, is there a mechanism for direct interaction with ministries or public bodies? 

Yes, our interaction is quite dynamic. Although we no longer receive institutional subsidies and all our projects are program-based, we maintain robust communication with various ministries. Our work spans across several domains, not just foreign affairs but also internal issues like migration and education, reflecting our comprehensive approach to policy research. 

My final question is, what would you say is the number one reason why we, as public research organizations, are valuable? What is the primary purpose of our institutions in society?   

I believe it is exactly what we have discussed: not all policies are functional. As a result, there must be feedback on what works and what doesn't. Also, as we've discussed earlier, another purpose of ours is putting things on the agenda, not only because we survey the public, but also because we know the regions where we work very well; our researchers partly live there, so they collaborate with local researchers, and they work in the region frequently.  

Also, I believe that putting items on the agenda is quite valuable. Then we perform evidence-based work because there is already a lot of media spin and narratives out there. So if there are still neutral researchers performing evidence-based work, I believe it is valuable to everyone.