BACKGROUND: Despite recognition of the need to increase the pool of racial/ethnic minority investigators, racial/ethnic minority representation among National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded investigators remains low. Racial/ethnic minority investigators bring unique perspectives and experiences that enhance the potential for understanding factors that underlie racial/ethnic variation in health and health status. Identification of barriers to successful minority competition for NIH funding and suggestions for strategies to overcome them were obtained from a concept mapping project and a meeting of minority investigators and investigators at minority-serving institutions. METHODS: Concept mapping, a mixed-methods planning approach that integrates common data collection processes with multivariate statistical analyses, was used in this exploratory project. The concept mapping approach generated a series of related "concept maps" that were used for data interpretation and meeting discussions. RESULTS: Barriers to minority investigator competition for NIH funding identified by concept mapping participants include: (1) inadequate research infrastructure, training and development; (2) barriers to development as independent researchers; (3) inadequate mentoring; (4) insensitivity, misperceptions and miscommunication about the specific needs of investigators involved in research with minority communities; (5) institutional bias in NIH policies; (6) unfair competitive environment; (7) lack of institutional support; (8) lack of support for research topics/methods relevant to research with minority communities; and (9) social, cultural and environmental barriers. DISCUSSION: Data from both the concept mapping and the meeting discussions suggest the need to use a multilevel approach to increase minority representation among funded NIH investigators. Specifically, the NIH should use strategies that overcome barriers at the home institution, within NIH and at the investigator level.